Board of Ed makeup hangs in balance

boardofed

The announcement that Mayor John DeStefano Jr. will not seek an 11th term in office comes amidst the possibility of change in the Board of Education.

With New Haven’s charter revision commission meeting regularly, the city faces a once-in-a-decade opportunity to amend the makeup of the Board of Education, currently comprised of the mayor and seven members he directly appoints. Leading mayoral candidates, such as Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, have come out in favor of a hybrid school board comprised of both elected and appointed officials, arguing that it will increase transparency and accountability. But opponents, citing the recent successes of the city’s school change efforts, fear that elections will undermine the unity of the board and politicize its membership.

“A consistent concern I hear throughout the city, particularly from parents, is that the Board of Ed and the New Haven Public Schools don’t actively engage them in conversations about their children’s education,” Elicker said. “They say that a lot of the decision-making is done behind closed doors rather than in a manner that is open to and inclusive of the public.”

HALF-ELECTED, HALF-APPOINTED

By law, the Elm City is required to undergo charter revision once every 10 years, considering any changes residents may wish to see to the structure of city government. A Board of Aldermen-appointed charter revision commission, assembled late last year, will take public input before submitting proposals to the full board in May, which will then be voted on by the greater public this November.

Some of the changes the commission is likely to consider include changing the number of aldermen and setting term limits for aldermen and the mayor. Officials have also discussed altering the structure of the Board of Education to include elections for all or some of its membership. New Haven Public Schools is the only school district in Connecticut that does not elect its school board members, and 96 percent of school districts nationwide have elected school boards as well.

Elicker said that having a hybrid membership would force the board to be more transparent and hold members accountable more easily, as those who did not represent their constituents well would have to face losing re-election. He pointed to previous confusion about how certain students gained admission to public schools as evidence of the board’s lack of transparency and emphasized that a hybrid board would help prevent these situations.

Despite some of the success of New Haven school reform efforts, Elicker said that not all necessary voices have been included. A board elections process, he added, would increase community discussion about how to best move forward with education reform without politicizing it further.

“If you look at the current Board of Ed, there’s a lot of politics already going on,” Elicker said. “I’m not advocating for a fully elected board, and I think there’s much more of a risk of it being overly politicized with a fully elected board. I’m advocating for a compromise.”

Ward 27 Alderman Angela Russell said she is unsure about her position on potential changes but that she would “probably support [a hybrid board] more than not.”

“I’m not just picking on the board, though,” Russell said. “There just needs to be lots of change, and Board [of Ed] revision is the No. 1 thing we can start with. But we really need to dig in deep and have change all the way from the top down.”

PAUSE FOR CONCERN

But while some believe a hybrid board would better serve school reform, others — including some of the key architects of New Haven school change — have doubts.

In heralding the early successes of New Haven’s school reform efforts, DeStefano cited advances such as the 6 percentage point graduation rate increase and a fall in the dropout rate as evidence thatthe city has achieved significant results in public education. DeStefano, though, warned that the school reform initiative that began in 2009 could be derailed by any changes to the Board of Education’s structure.

“We need to carefully consider the impact that politicizing the school board could have on School Change in New Haven,” he wrote in a statement to the News.

School district representatives are also not convinced that elections are in the best interest of students in New Haven. New Haven’s School Board President Carlos Antonio Torre agreed that an appointed school board has been working in New Haven.

“Because of an appointed school board, New Haven has been able to do things that no other school in the country has,” Torre said referring to the districtwide renovation of all schools and adding that “you don’t get there by having an elected school board.”

Garth Harries ’95, the New Haven Public Schools assistant superintendent who oversees much of the school reform effort, said that while he understands the need to work with whatever system is authorized by the charter, he is concerned that an elected board would not be as effective because it will not be focused on one defined set of goals.

Torre said that a hybrid model will create a divide among Board of Education members who are elected and those that are appointed. And while he said the idea that elections would increase community participation in schools may “sound good,” he stressed that interest in education “doesn’t work that way.” Those running for election get excited about a specific issue, he explained, while Board of Education members have to be able to look at the “entire picture.”

State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, who will file candidacy papers for the mayoral race Friday, has not fully committed either way. He said a hybrid board would not necessarily be more responsive than the current Board of Education or solve the existing issues people have with education reform, adding that he thinks city residents are more frustrated with the Board of Education’s bureaucracy.

“I think whenever you’re in a system, whether it’s elected or appointed, if it’s not working, you think the other system is probably better,” Holder-Winfield said. “I think it should be a decision that the people of the city discuss and decide.”

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