UP CLOSE: Rebuilding the New Haven school board

Rebuilding the New Haven school board

Published on April 26, 2018

Jacob Spell, a New Haven senior and student representative on the city’s Board of Education, learned in late March that he had been accepted to six of the eight Ivy League schools. But his mother, Maritza Baez — a high school dropout who has lived in New Haven since the age of 10 —  told the News that she cannot credit her son’s success to the New Haven public school system.

Spell attended Cortland V.R. Creed Health and Sports Sciences, a small magnet school located in North Haven under the purview of the New Haven Public Schools, for the majority of high school. Baez first became vocal at meetings of the New Haven Board of Education — which is composed of nine members and is responsible for making the schools’ major administrative policy decisions — over a year ago, when school board members were threatening to shut down Creed while simultaneously discussing plans to open an all-boys charter school in the district. She kept attending after deciding the New Haven Public Schools needed parents who were prepared to represent all the district’s children.

The New Haven Board of Education’s public image did not fare well in 2017. The problems started before the year began — in September 2016, when former superintendent Garth Harries ’95 resigned after community members criticized his leadership skills and use of city funds. A yearlong superintendent search ensued, which involved the hiring of a national headhunting firm and several delays, culminating in the election of Carol Birks — a candidate unpopular with community members, who mobilized during the search process. At the board meeting at which Birks was hired, tensions among board members reached new heights: Over 20 community members shared reasons why the school board should hire one of the other two finalists, and elected board member Ed Joyner challenged a former ally of his, elected member and current President of the Board Darnell Goldson, to a duel.

The death last July of former board president and New Haven Public Schools parent Daisy Gonzalez — who was revered by the community as a member willing to listen to community concerns — took a toll on the district. Joyner took the helm of the board, a position he reminded folks he never asked for.

Since then, the school board has been in damage-control mode. The events of 2017 come at a time when state funding for education is drying up, pushing the district and city to make more cuts and compromises in apportioning district funds. And it remains to be seen whether the Board of Education can meet the demands of its constituents as the district grapples with funding cuts and a tarnished reputation in the community.

Parent activism

Baez is not the only dissatisfied New Haven Public Schools parent. Several years ago, Njija Ife-Waters became active in the district when her son came home from school after receiving the wrong allergy medication. She has since attended school board meetings, hoping to bring a parent’s voice to board decisions and advocate for all children.

While few community members attend school board meetings in surrounding suburban towns, nearly 100 community members regularly frequent New Haven’s biweekly meetings. In the fall, district parents told the News they were concerned by the prevalence of unprofessional behavior on the school board and the fraught relationship between Joyner and Goldson, two former allies. 

“The animosity increased between two board members, who started off as being together, and then all of a sudden it dismantled. And it was disheartening because it was a mess, it was chaotic, it was embarrassing,” Baez said. “I was like, I can’t even believe that these are the people that are representing the schools that our kids go to.”

This disappointment only increased when Birks was hired last November. Birks, previously the chief of staff of Hartford Public Schools and an advocate for charter schools with only three years of teaching experience, was not the candidate that parents had told the board they wanted to see.

District parents are hoping to expand involvement further with their collective activist group, the New Haven Public Schools Advocates, which was founded in response to this year’s disappointments. The group has taken over some of the functions members believe have not been fulfilled by the current school board, whose meetings the majority of parents are unable to attend because they are held at times when children are at home, according to multiple parents. Every week a member of the New Haven Public Schools Advocates brings a camera stand to broadcast the event on Facebook Live. The Advocates also upload most committee meetings to their website.

Even Yale students have gotten involved in the efforts. Kathryn Patton ’21 started working with the New Haven Public Schools Advocates this semester through the Yale College Democrats. As a member of the Dems’ City Engagement Team, Patton said, she asked for this assignment and now has mostly been involved with the Advocates’ transparency work: attending some Board of Education and subcommittee meetings to take notes and acting as a liaison for other Yale students interested in volunteering.

“Different members are particularly passionate about different issues — e.g. Board of Education governance, program rigidity, school funding — but unite to share their experiences and work towards a more effective, equitable, accountable public school system,” Patton wrote in an email. “This group is inclusive, growing, and attracts community members who may not have been politically active before.”

But the recent emergence of the New Haven Public Schools Advocates does not mean that parents have only recently become involved in the local education system.

Two years ago, Waters took over as president of the Citywide Parent Team, which meets the first Thursday of every month. Since she took the helm, the Citywide Parent Team’s has focused on helping parents navigate the district by conducting surveys and hosting educational sessions. In addition to these efforts, the Citywide Parent Team aims to connect parents with resources or district personnel to help them address problems. Waters said she is a firm believer in working “up the proper chain of demand” — first bringing issues to teachers, then principals, then directors and finally the school board and superintendent. 

But last year, she said, it seemed as if the only way to make change was to skip all the steps and take problems straight to the school board. She felt the district faced problems so fundamental that they required action by the board. 

“Citywide Parent Team is for parents by parents,” Waters said. “Our focus is based on the needs of parents to navigate through this urban district.”

Changes on the board

With the departure of former board members Che Dawson and Carlos Torre last December, Mayor Toni Harp now has four appointees on the school board. In the past year, the mayoral appointees have tended to vote with the mayor and current board President Darnell Goldson — most notably on the decision to elect Birks as superintendent.

Parents in the district are pleased that since the two new appointees joined the school board — pediatrician Tamiko Jackson-McArthur and former alder and mayoral liaison to the Board of Alders Joey Rodriguez — the way meetings are run has changed drastically. Whereas old meetings used to be plagued with bickering between board members and even personal jabs, Baez said, the meetings since November have been largely civil, professional and productive.

And with the new board members comes a new vision for the potential of the board. In an interview with the News, Rodriguez, a parent of a second grader in the district, said he is focused on “educational equity.” He said he wants to find answers to why resources — teachers, funding and school supplies — are distributed unequally among schools in the district, a question he says the district has struggled to answer in the past.

“New Haven is at a crossroads with our education,” Rodriguez said. “Parents and advocates are very active — more so now than before — because they see the change and they see there is an opportunity for change. With a new superintendent, with new board members, I think folks are seeing it as an opportunity to truly move our district forward.”

The school board has become increasing democratic in recent past years. In 2015, the board made a shift from seven mayoral appointees to a configuration consisting of the mayor, four mayoral appointees who must be approved by the Board of Alders, two elected members and two nonvoting student representatives. But New Haven still lags behind other urban districts on this front. According to their district’s website, the Hartford Board of Education is comprised of four elected and five appointed members. In Bridgeport, the school board is fully elected with a rule that no more than six members can belong to the same political party, according to board member Joseph Sokolovic.

The New Haven Public Schools Advocates and members of the school board including Joyner have proposed amending the city charter to allow student representatives on the board to have voting power. If Hillhouse High School senior Makayla Dawkins and Spell, the two student representatives, had had the ability to vote, the motion to appoint Birks would have been struck down, 5–4.

In interviews with the News, past student representatives criticized the treatment they received while serving on the school board. Coral Ortiz ’21, a graduate of James Hillhouse High School and one of the first student representatives to serve on the school board, said that after two years of serving she felt “frustrated.” She mentioned that conduct was poor, noting that disagreements among members would often lead to petty public attacks.

But Ortiz said she does not think student representatives should be able to vote on issues because the job is difficult to balance with the demands of being a student and would come with more pressure from different groups who have interests in board matters. She said she sees other ways to remedy the issue and proposed instead an additional committee that would consist of board members and a select group of students from across the district. This committee, she said, could serve as way for students to advise on policies and raise specific issues, and it could bridge the gap between the board and the student population. 

In addition to elevating the voices of students, community members say they want a hand in who represents them on the school board. One of the New Haven Public Schools Advocates’ efforts has focused on circulating an online petition — #PeoplesBoardofEducation. The petition would require board members to be approved by the Board of Alders after they are appointed — an effort that parents hope will generate long-term change in the district.

“Board of Education members should also be free of personal and financial conflicts of interest,” the petition reads. “We ask the New Haven Board of Alders to establish parameters that recognize these requirements BEFORE confirming any new appointees to the Board of Education.”

As of April 25, the petition has garnered 653 signatures, but the Advocates are waiting until 1,000 people have signed on before presenting it to the Board of Alders.

A call for transparency

Amid personnel changes and pressure from parents, the school board is taking steps toward greater transparency. But community members do not want to be left out of any step of the board’s decision-making process, as they felt happened during the crisis last fall.

The board has taken steps to improve transparency, and the New Haven Public Schools Advocates are ready to give the board credit. On their website earlier this year, the New Haven Public Schools Advocates posted steps the board has already taken to increase transparency: posting the board’s policies and bylaws online; releasing an agenda for the a meeting of the Governance Committee, which is tasked with ensuring the board has an effective governance system, on the district’s website before the meeting; and providing answers to questions raised during the public comment section at board meetings.

And board members say they want the community involved in decision making. At her transition kickoff meeting in April, Birks shared her plans to hold budget workshops, town hall meetings and community forums. In addition, the school board is looking for innovative ways to focus on the positive, recognizing successful students, programs and sports teams at meetings, such as national long jump champion and Career High School senior Dyshon Vaughn. At the April 23 meeting, Birks introduced nine students from the Culinary Arts program at Wilbur Cross High School.

Under Goldson, the board is making more significant efforts to expand its influence in the district — and perhaps the most important step is revitalizing its committees. In an interview with the News, Goldson said this new school board will be a “working board.”  Before this year, the only active committee was the Finance and Operations Committee. Now, the Teaching and Learning Committee and Governance Committee have resumed — after years of irregular meetings — and the board has added a School Facility Naming Committee.

“There is a change, and I think the change that I’ve seen is having more members at the table,” Waters said. “I’m seeing that right now, there seems to be an interest in doing things the right way … it seem like they’re trying to put up a structure.”

Outdated policies are another issue facing the  school board. The body’s bylaws, adopted in 1999, have not been fully updated since the city charter was changed in 2015, leading to confusion among residents due to conflicting policies. 

For example, according to the school board bylaws, all official actions by the board have to be approved by five members — which was a majority on the old eight-member board. Although Carlos Torre told the News in September that the board voted to change its bylaws to require four voting members, the policies posted online do not reflect any change.

Community members brought up this policy when four of the seven board members approved Birks to the superintendent position. In addition, an administrative policy says that a superintendent should not be appointed for a term of more than one year, while city and state policy allows for a three-year contract.

The board has begun making moves to update its internal rules. Members decided last month to enter an agreement with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, which assists local and regional school boards across the state. Jackson-McArthur — the chair of the board’s Governance Committee — said representatives from the association will review the board’s bylaws and policies and create a new policy manual for the district, at a cost of more than $20,000 over the next three years.

Parents involved with the New Haven Public Schools Advocates say that by putting the board under a microscope, their activism forced this action.

Some board members disagree, however. Goldson, who was elected as school board president in January, said the change is mostly the result of new leadership. But he acknowledged that the New Haven Public Schools Advocates and parent voices have made board members aware of certain problems, such as a lack of outreach to the district’s Spanish-speaking population.

The April 23 board meeting was the first with a Spanish interpreter was present.

A long way to go

Still, the board has not adopted close to the number of changes the New Haven Public Schools Advocates and other community members would like to see implemented. And, in some ways, it seems as though the school board has fallen back into its old ways.

Parents continue to voice concerns that information on board happenings is not easily accessible — that the board’s website is not regularly updated and that until recently videos of n meetings were almost impossible to load. The New Haven Public Schools Advocates are further requesting that the board upload a full list of contractors and subcontractors on the New Haven Public Schools website, including the names of each firm’s proprietors, managers and personnel and post a list of all district personnel, including job titles and responsibilities, work locations and salaries.

And while Spanish translation will be available at full board meetings, 74 languages are spoken in the district, according to Birks. Bridgeport Public Schools’ Code of Conduct and Parent Engagement Policies are available online in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole and Vietnamese.

Misinformation continues to plague the board as well. While the New Haven Public Schools website indicates that the Governance Committee meets every other Monday after the Finance and Operations Committee meetings, few of the recorded meetings have actually taken place. For example, the board’s Teaching and Learning Committee did not meet on April 23, even though the board’s online calendar indicated a meeting would be held.

“If you want parents to squeeze in participation, you have to set those dates early and stick to those dates,” Kelly said. 

Parents flocked to the April 23 Finance and Operations meeting, where the committee was set to discuss major financial decisions, including the possibility of school closures and consolidations. But because conversation was limited to committee members and took place around a small round table, only a small number of those present could hear the discussions. At the end of the meeting, Goldson proposed changing the location of the next finance committee meeting, acknowledging that community members had had difficult hearing.

Mistrust of the board seems to have trickled down to the student population. Only one student is vying for Spell’s student board position, which has typically been contested in the past. After Joey Rodriguez, the chair of the Student Elections Committee, visited student leadership groups, he learned that dysfunction on the board and complaints that student representatives do not have voting power have limited students’ engagement.

To mitigate some of these issues, parent activist Njija-Ife Waters recently recommended that the board send out a weekly newsletter. But so far, none has materialized.

“I thought a newsletter would capture all the importance, what parents should know, whether it’s from whatever groups that are out there, parent groups, as well as is happening on the board, that’s more of getting parents involved,” Waters said. “We’re talking about more involvement. If parents really knew the way things were happening before time, it can help them better plan their time.”

What’s next?

Improving its public image could help the New Haven Board of Education as it faces tough decisions in the coming weeks and months. Perhaps the most pressing task facing New Haven Public Schools is its impending financial crisis. The New Haven Public Schools faces a roughly $7 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2017–18 budget and the district estimates it will have an almost $10 million budget deficit next year. Even worse, the latter number is based on the school board’s approved 2018–19 budget, which includes a request for $10 million from the city — not the more recent budget draft proposed by the mayor, which only apportions $5 million. And with an ongoing state budget crisis and reluctance by legislators to make changes in how education funds are allocated to urban districts, options are limited.

It remains to be seen whether the new school board is equipped to make the tough decisions the budget shortfall will likely require. Some parents are pessimistic, unconvinced that the board is prepared to handle daunting financial issues and still frustrated about gaps in communication. Others are confident that the board is on the path to making much-needed improvements.

While the future remains unclear, what’s certain is that parents are emboldened and ready to push back when they consider decisions unfair.

Birks has said publicly that she wants to make New Haven Public Schools one the highest performing urban districts in the nation. And parents believe that listening is the first step to reaching that goal.

Isabel Bysiewicz | isabel.bysiewicz@yale.edu



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