Jimmie Griffin blasted the process used to hire the new superintendent of schools.

   Jimmie Griffin has earned a reputation in Waterbury as a fiery speaker who enjoys tangling with individuals in power. When Griffin perceives that the minority community is being overlooked he isn’t afraid to take on a mayor, the school board, or the publisher of the daily newspaper. Griffin ran for mayor in 1995, was the driving force behind the aldermen by district movement, was the the head of the NAACP in Waterbury for seven years, and was statewide president of the NAACP for two years.

   His latest gig is as the head of the Waterbury Center for Economic and Social Justice, and he recently returned from a training seminar in Washington D.C., where he learned to “watch the process from begining to end.”

   Since his return from Washington D.C., the already assertive community activist has been a firecracker on the internet, aggressively using social media to question authority and champion Dr. Portia Bonner, a black woman from Waterbury, as the next superintendent of Waterbury schools. Griffin has fought for social justice for blacks in America for the past 40 years. He has served on Human Rights Commissions, and was never shy about using the NAACP pulpit to champion causes in the black community.

   Jimmie Griffin has been described as an agitator who overplays the race card, a champion for the down-trodden, a loud mouth, a passionate community activist, and a wedge that alienates both blacks and whites in Waterbury. At times he may be all of the above, but don’t underestimate the man.

   His recent skirmish with power is with the Waterbury Board of Education, who tentatively selected Kathleen Ouellette, a white woman, to be the school superintendent, and with the Republican-American newspaper, who Griffin accuses of racist coverage of the selection process.

   To set the stage for Griffin’s outbursts at a press conference held August  4th at the WOW Learning Center on Walnut Street, it is critically important to understand what Dr. Portia Bonner represents to the black community in Waterbury.

   “She is home grown and knows the issues facing this school system,” Monroe Webster said. “She is equally qualified as the other two candidates and we should not have to be struggling to get Dr. Bonner selected.”

   James Monroe eloquently captured the frustration in the black community when he said “Dr. Bonner is the best we can give. She is educated, she is spiritual, we have no one better than her. If the school board over looks her, it leaves us hopeless.”

   Griffin was outraged when the school board selected Ouellette in executive session Monday night, and his outrage grew to anger when the Republican-American newspaper didn’t publish an article about the black community reaction to the selection. Yesterday morning Griffin blasted the Republican-American on the internet, and accused the daily newspaper of racist and biased coverage. He then called an “emergency” press conference at the WOW Center and fired the notice across the internet. With more than 4000 Facebook friends, Griffin’s use of social media is a new and powerful tool on the Waterbury political scene.

   With three hours notice, Griffin’s emergency press conference drew a dozen concerned members of the black community, but more significantly, four members of the media.

   Griffin opened the press conference with a direct attack on the Republican-American newspaper. Griffin accused the Republican-American of controlling the debate on the hiring of a new superintendent of schools in Waterbury. Griffin, who has clashed with the newspaper many times before, said the biased coverage began with articles on the pre-selection process that smeared Portia Bonner. Bonner had skirmished with the mayor of New Bedford in her only previous job as a superintendent, and had left the post before her contract had expired. 

   An article published in the Republican-American on July 17th titled “Portia Bonner Has Supporters In Community”, written by reporter Michael Puffer, was og particular interest to Griffin. The article began…..

   Harried out of her last job as head of the New Bedford (Mass.) Public Schools in 2010, Portia Bonner now finds herself one of the top contenders to become Waterbury’s school superintendent.

   Despite her stormy history, she is the only one of three finalists to enjoy a show of public support, a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign on her behalf and the appearance of dozens of supporters, mostly African American, at a recent school board meeting.

   This is because Bonner has a history in the city. She grew up here. Her father was a pastor at Mount Olive A.M.E Zion Church, where she still plays piano. She rose through the city’s teaching ranks to become its top science supervisor before heading off to become an assistant superintendent in Hamden in 2005 and, three years later, to her ill-fated stint in New Bedford.

   Buried at the bottom of the story were kinder words about Bonner…

   School Committee Vice Chairman Jill Ussach said there is some shared blame. Bonner could have been more diplomatic, but the school board could have done a better job backing her. She praised Bonner’s love for children and educational insight.

   “I think she had a great vision,” Ussach said. “I think she knew how to take a school district, change it and make it go forward. I think what happened here is we wanted change, but we kind of wanted change on our own terms.”

   The newspaper feature began with “harried”, “stormy” and “ill-fated”, and it wasn’t until two-thirds of the way into the article that the reader was provided context about Bonner’s side of the experience….

   Herbert Pandiscio, of Avon, was Bonner’s boss when he was interim superintendent in Hamden. In a letter of recommendation attached to Bonner’s Waterbury application, Pandiscio wrote that he was impressed by her workload and knowledge in Hamden. He describes her as “an outstanding leader” and “tireless worker,” who sets a fast pace for others, but makes time to counsel them as well.

   Pandiscio worked with Bonner again when he was hired to review personnel procedures in New Bedford. In his recommendation, Pandiscio wrote that he found a system of favoritism and patronage in New Bedford that “impeded the hiring of outstanding employees.”

   Dr. Bonner was the only finalist for the superintendent position that was given the deep background treatment. Jimmie Griffin believes it was intentional.

   “There were three candidates and we got one story about Dr. Bonner’s issue in New Bedford,” Griffin said. “Right then I knew the paper was setting Dr. Bonner up for failure in getting the job.”

   In contrast, Griffin said, Kathleen Ouelette was described by the Republican-American as a tough decision maker. “It’s bias,” Griffin said. “The newspaper prints a one-sided story and then doesn’t follow-up with coverage of the black community’s reaction to the the hiring of a white woman. The Republican-American newspaper is poisonous, and it’s time for us to boycott the newspaper.”

    Griffin effectively led a boycott of the Republican-American back in the late 1990s over the coverage of Joseph Jaynes, a black leader who ran the Waterbury Opportunities Industrialization Center. Intense media pressure surrounding a possible investigation ended with Jaynes committing suicide. Griffin helped spearhead a boycott of the newspaper and dozens of members of the black community protested outside Republican-American headquarters on Meadow Street.

   The chief complaint was that the Republican-American seldom featured positive news about the black community, but was not adverse to plastering the front page with images of black men in handcuffs. Eventually meetings were set up between Jimmie Griffin and the leadership at the paper. The boycott and protests stopped, and almost overnight the newspaper began publishing social pages focused on positive gatherings in the black community.

   Fourteen years later Jimmie Griffin is calling for another boycott of the newspaper. He wrote on his Facebook page on August 4th it’s time to “boycott the Waterbury Republican-American for its racist suppression, blatent inacturate reporting of Waterbury news, its portrayal of African Americans in its news stories and editorial pages, as well as its hiring practices of people of color in its newsroom.”

   Much of the press conference was directed at the newspaper’s negative portrayal of Portia Bonner and the black community in Waterbury. The newspaper had no reporter covering the press conference but sent photographer Chris Massa to cover the event. Massa’s shot of Griffin holding up a copy of the Republican-American newspaper during the press conference was published on the front page of today’s newspaper, but there was no mention of Griffin calling for a boycott, or accusing the newspaper of institutional racism. There is no explanation of why Griffin is holding the newspaper.

   “I want to read about our community’s reaction to this process,” Griffin said. “The newspaper’s coverage is one of the biggest problems in Waterbury. I want to send them a message.”

   And Griffin plans to rally the black community to march in protest to the Board of Education meeting on Monday night, where Kathleen Ouellette’s selection is expected to be finalized.

   “We are going to march on that meeting to send the board of education a message from the black community,” Griffin said. “We are sick and tired of being treated like we are on a plantation.”

   Both Mayor Michael Jarjura and Democrat challenger Neil O’Leary have backed Bonner for the school post, both citing her Waterbury roots, and what a tremendous role model she would be for the largely minority population that attends Waterbury public schools. 

   Marchers are asked to gather at Grace Baptist Church at 5 pm for a rally, which will be followed by a short march to the Waterbury Magnet Arts School.

With three hours notice a dozen members of the black community, along with four members of the media, showed up at the WOW Learning Center for an “emergency” press conference.

Greg Hadley is an aldermanic candidate on the Democrat ticket this November, and said he was discouraged at the hiring process used to select a new school chief. “The school board asked for community involvement and we gave it to them,” Hadley said. “Don’t ask if you don’t do something with it. It was disrespectful.”

Monroe Webster is a former president of the Waterbury branch of the NAACP and said the black community is “dissatisfied” with the outcome of the selection process. 

If Portia Bonner can’t make it through the selection process, members of the black community wondered which of them could? James Monroe said “Dr. Bonner is the best we can give. If they overlook her, it leaves us hopeless.”

Jimmie Griffin believes in Frederick Douglass’s statement “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”