Carol Pimentel, a Cape Verdean-American woman of tremendous achievement, stood at the podium in the New Bedford City Council chambers last week and was judged lacking by six of 11 councilors.
It was a sad moment even for a council that has had more than its share of sad moments this last year or so.
Pimentel was Mayor Jon Mitchell’s second nominee to sit on the Voc-Tech School Committee that the council has rejected in the last three years. Both of them were well-known and well-respected Cape Verdean residents of New Bedford. The other was School Committee member Jack Livramento.
Let me tell you a little bit about Carol Pimentel, whom I have known for almost the entire 23 years I’ve covered New Bedford politics.
Pimentel graduated from the old New Bedford Vocational High School back in 1964. A star basketball player at the time, she once scored 42 points in a game — still a school record — and was named to the school’s Hall of Fame.
Back in the day, there was little opportunity for someone from a low-income neighborhood like Pimentel’s to attend college, but she was a determined woman. She eventually found her way to Southeastern Massachusetts University and graduated with a degree in accounting. From there she went on to obtain a master’s in administration from Boston University. She has since that time worked as the auditor and director of community development for the city of New Bedford, then as a senior auditor for UMass, and finally as the budget director and internal audit director at UMass Dartmouth.
Pimentel has been active in the city for decades on a volunteer basis, and currently sits on both the Economic Development Council and the New Bedford Redevelopment Authority.
But it was not her good qualifications that defeated Pimentel. Rather it was the determination of the City Council not to follow the state’s 2021 directive to vocational technical schools to change their admissions policies so that larger numbers of English learners and disabled students can attend. Pimentel supports the reforms, as does the mayor.
Carol Pimental speaks at the City Council’s Appointments and Briefings meeting on Jan. 10. (Hear Pimental at the 45:47 mark)
Councilors Ryan Pereira, Linda Morad and Naomi Carney grilled Pimentel on whether she believes in a proposed lottery system that would allow all students an equal shot at attending the vocational schools, something the schools, including GNBVT, have resisted ferociously. The other two councilors voting against Pimentel — Ian Abreu and Maria Giesta — once again sat silently through a critical council discussion, and then voted the way they voted. Can you spell political antenna? They can.
It’s odd. Because since the controversy over the admissions policies at voc-tech began, the council has approved two other of Mitchell’s nominees, who were also in favor of reforming the voc-tech admissions system: Josh Amaral, who later resigned over time constraints and Kimberli Bettencourt, who is currently on the voc-tech committee.
Whatever the reason for the council’s rejections of Livramento and Pimentel, Mitchell tells me he does not intend to withdraw the latter’s application, as long as she is willing to go forward and has a chance to succeed. The council can resist his nominations all it wants, he is not sending a nominee who opposes further reforms to the voke admissions policies. “I’m not changing my approach at all,” he said.
There still may be a chance Pimentel could get through. Two councilors were missing from the 5-4 vote declining to recommend Pimentel to the full council. Ward 4 Councilor Derek Baptiste was absent, as he not infrequently is, from council meetings. And the Ward 3 seat is currently empty in the wake of the December resignation of Hugh Dunn.
The Ward 3 seat will be filled by the end of February. In addition, Councilor Pereira, who votes last because of alphabetical order, seemed torn by the issue. He was writing on a pad as the councilors voted before him as he says he always keeps track of the votes. When it finally came to his turn, the vote was tied 4-4. He did not at first answer when the clerk of committees called his name. The clerk called a second time and “No,” he said.
Pereira told me he was struggling right to the last minute but that he always votes his conscience in the end.
He said he had received a number of calls opposing the implementation of a proposed lottery system, which would allow everyone in 8th grade in New Bedford a chance of being selected to attend the vocational school. “I do think voke needs to change some of its admissions,” Pereira said, mentioning the grade averages of C or better as something that probably should be eliminated. The state has already instructed voc-tech high schools to eliminate excused absences and minor disciplinary issues as reasons for denying admission to the 13-year-old applicants.
At the motion of Councilor Shane Burgo, the council took a second vote to forward the Pimentel nomination to the full council without a recommendation. This time, Councilor Pereira changed his vote and the result was 5-4 in Pimentel’s favor, but that was still one vote short of the council majority necessary for the nomination to go forward.
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Pereira said that due to Pimentel’s qualifications, he thinks she should receive a vote of the full council. Pereira, however, said he continues to oppose Pimentel’s position that a lottery might have to be considered to bring more Latino and disabled students into GNBVT.
It may all come down to Councilor Carney.
Carney, a councilor of Cape Verdean and Wampanoag background, had kept the Pimentel nomination, which was originally made last July, bottled up in her committee before she finally put it at the top of the agenda in December. Will she put it there again? She seemed determined last week to block the appointment, and the council committee chairs control the calendar.
At the meeting at which Pimentel was voted down, Carney, whose father taught at the old New Bedford voke and whose two children attended voc-tech, claimed that Pimentel did not know the voc-tech admissions process. She had, out of the blue, asked Pimentel to state the admissions criteria, and the flummoxed candidate resisted, although she later said she did, in fact, know them.
Carney later told a WBSM reporter that she is looking for a younger graduate of Voc-Tech to sit on the board, rather than someone older like Pimentel. That sounded like ageism to some who heard it.
If the council continues to hold out on Mitchell’s nomination, it seems like every day it will bring the city a step closer to a civil rights lawsuit over the admissions policies.
A group named the Vocational Education Justice Coalition has already threatened a suit statewide, saying they are not convinced the steps the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has already taken — which include eliminating minor disciplinary and excused attendance as reasons for penalizing applying students — is enough. They have argued for the lottery system as necessary to address a growing and major inequity in vocational education across the state.
That kind of lottery, however, as Councilor Morad correctly pointed out, might still leave out vocationally-inclined students. She makes a case that long term, the best solution is to build two vocational high schools in New Bedford. That’s an attractive thought but one that, even if it had political support, seems decades away from realization due to the long process and financial hurdles in building a new high school.
Pimentel, under questioning from Councilor Pereira, said a lottery, unfortunately, may be necessary to ensure equal access if there is no other way. But she said she has a record of working well with others on committees to reach agreement.
How did it happen that so many more kids want to attend vocational high schools than can be accepted?
Over the last 30 years, the state has subsidized the building of regional career high schools across Massachusetts and they, far and away, now offer more attractive hands-on programing than the traditional comprehensive high schools do. What’s more, these voc-techs, unlike the traditional district high schools, are able to pick and choose their student bodies. So they have far fewer students speaking English as a second language, or having physical or developmental disabilities.
In essence, these restricted-admissions schools have become the best-quality public high schools in many school districts, particularly in urban districts. But many of their students who do not intend to pursue vocational careers are filling the seats. That leaves the students who traditionally attended vocational high schools — students with less interest in academic subjects — increasingly blocked from the very schools originally meant to educate them.
The vocational-technical schools have long used the criteria of grades, attendance and conduct in deciding who gets accepted. GNBVT has instituted a small lottery for a limited number of students this year.
The result is that the vocational-technical schools have become high schools that have the least challenging student bodies, while the traditional high schools have the most challenging student bodies. The voc-techs, in effect, have become elite public high schools that middle-class parents and kids from the most stable family situations gravitate toward. In fact, GNB Voc-Tech now has a higher rate of college-bound students than New Bedford High School.
Don’t get it wrong, there is still a small cohort of academically gifted students who remain at district high schools like New Bedford High. Those kids are in the honors and advanced placement classes, and they get admitted to elite universities every year. But the vast majority of the student body in the district high schools are kids who could either not get into voc-tech or kids whose lives were not stable enough to apply.
At the Appointments and Briefings Committee at which the council voted not to recommend Pimentel’s appointment, there was an interesting exchange between freshman Councilor Pereira and Ms. Pimentel.
Pereira took the position that he was against instituting a lottery because the current voc-tech school is working well. “I’m a little concerned about leveraging voke and the high school,” he said. “I think if voke is working, we really shouldn’t mess around too, too much with it.”
Pimentel took issue with that. She asked Pereira, many decades her junior, who it was that voke was working well for.
“That kind of bothers me,” she said. “Because we don’t want to mess it up. Well, how is it going to be messed up?” she asked. “By admitting more English learner and disabled students?”
“Some of these students don’t have the opportunity,” she continued. “That doesn’t mean they are going to change the balance if they have the opportunity.”
It didn’t matter. The council votes weren’t there for this great asset to the city of New Bedford.
“Thank you. Have a good evening,” said Pimentel, who was still standing at the podium when the council voted against her taking a seat on the School Committee for its vocational high school.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.