The Herbsts now have extraordinary control of the whole town budget, and have affected the school system’s ability to serve as an independent advocate for education.
Last week, the Board of Education elected Deborah Herbst as its chairwoman, just one day after her son, Timothy Herbst, was sworn in for a third term as Trumbull first selectman.
Trumbull now has a first selectman responsible for an overall municipal budget of roughly $155 million and a school board led by the first selectman’s mother that controls how $95 million of that overall budget is spent.
This arrangement places too much policy-making power in the hands of a single family. It creates a conflict between the policy responsibilities and the personal ties of family members. And it places other town officials in awkward situations.
“Deborah Herbst should not be the school board chairwoman, and the whole Board of Education, including the Democrats who supported this decision, should reconsider their votes,” said Tony Silber, chairman of the Democratic Town Committee’s Communications Subcommittee. “The town’s most important institutions should not be controlled by a single family.” Not only does this control include the town government and the school board, it also includes the high school athletic department, which has a $1 million budget of its own and is led by Athletic Director Michael Herbst.
“This situation leaves one family exerting extraordinary control over the $155 million municipal budget,” Silber said. “It diminishes the separation of town government and the school budget, as specifically spelled out by state law.”
Mrs. Herbst is a longstanding member of the school board. Becoming chairwoman increases her power, officially and unofficially. Now senior administrators, teachers, parents and others must wonder whether the leading member of the school board is representing the school system’s interests, or instead, to some extent, her son’s agenda.
The objectives of the town government and the school system are not always the same. It was only a few years ago that First Selectman Herbst was calling the school board dangerous and irresponsible. Going forward, will Timothy Herbst be able to frankly address his differences with the powerful board that his mother now runs?
“The question can be raised whether the hand of the first selectman is behind the actions of the school board,” Silber said. “The school system should be more independent. State statute specifically separates school budgets from town budgets. There’s a good reason for that.”
“I hope that the school board will reconsider its decision, because it creates a clear conflict in terms of policy, and it puts others in awkward situations,” Silber said. “This is not good for Trumbull.”