Harp, Harries ease tensions

What seemed like a $9 million budget deficit now appears not so grave. What seemed like a direct threat to one official’s continued employment now appears to have dissipated.

Mayor Toni Harp and New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Garth Harries ’95 met Friday afternoon and reportedly resolved Harp’s concerns surrounding the school district’s projected budget deficit. After saying she would not support his reappointment in March unless he could present a balanced budget, Harp said she does not plan to push for a delay of the vote on his reappointment.

Still, Harp said, she is concerned about looming deficits — and warned all department heads to balance their budgets before the city charts its fiscal future this spring.

“My concern about a balanced budget at New Haven Public Schools is not unique to that department,” Harp said. “I will insist that Superintendent Harries and each department head manage his or her city department responsibly and keep within the established budget for the current fiscal year.”

Harries, who took the helm of the school district last July, is up for review this spring. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on his potential reappointment by March 1. After initially saying she could not back Harries’ reappointment by March — and asking that the vote be delayed to May — Harp seems to have resolved her concerns about the timeline of the vote, which School Board President Carlos Torre said is written into Harries’ contract.

Harp said she would continue to monitor the Board of Education’s evaluation of Harries. She ultimately has one of eight votes on the matter of his reappointment. Torre said the Board likes the votes to be unanimous.

Harp’s initial concern stemmed from a projected $9 million debt reported in an audit of last fiscal year’s budget. She said Board of Alders President Jorge Perez first alerted her of potentially steep deficits, owing in large part to costs from free and reduced-price lunches.

Harries said he clarified at Friday’s meeting that the $9 million is not reflective of the district’s current fiscal state. The district’s last report, issued in December 2013, revealed a $3.5 million deficit. An updated report will be made public at the School Board’s next meeting, scheduled for early February.

For the past six months, Harries, who oversaw much of the city’s school change initiative as assistant superintendent before his promotion last year, has worked to close the deficit, he said. The city has reduced personnel spending by eliminating central office positions, including his previous position of assistant superintendent, and by closing down classrooms with relatively few students. Students in small classrooms in Lincoln-Bassett School and MicroSociety School were relocated and some full-time positions at Polly T. McCabe Center were eliminated. Because personnel spending accounts for approximately 85 percent of the budget, Harries explained, most of the overruns are due to costs in personnel.

Even with regard to food service, which he said accounted for approximately 50 percent of the budget deficit, issues with staffing are a primary concern. The district has hired a new food service manager to keep track of food service costs and revenues, which Harries regarded as essential to meeting the goal of a balanced budget by the end of the fiscal year.

While Harries recognized the importance of a stable budget, he also said that the $3.5 million deficit is not unreasonable.

Harp said she would still like to see the School Board take greater care when it comes to the budget. At the two board meetings she has attended since assuming the mayor’s office Jan. 1, she has not seen members present spending reports or audits.

“We can’t afford to have another downgrade. It’s not acceptable,” Harp said. “They need to make corrections.”

Her concerns about Harries’ fiscal management were unrelated to a letter she received last week from the Greater New Haven Clergy Association calling for Harries’ replacement, Harp said on Friday.

That letter, signed by Reverend James Newman, alleged that Harries lacks experience working in urban public education — and has not succeeded in turning around the city’s failing schools. Torre declined to comment on the letter, saying he could not assess Harries’ tenure as he is currently in the process of officially evaluating him.

David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, said he supports Harries, though he would ordinarily be wary of a superintendent without experience as a teacher or principal.

“Garth is an exception to the rule,” Cicarella said. He specifically cited Harries’ reservations about “high-stakes testing” and his support for teachers as reasons to keep him on as superintendent.

Harries responded to the letter by saying the district still has much to accomplish but that he is dedicated to making sure that “every school is successful.” He said a number of clergy and other community leaders spoke out in support of him following the letter’s surfacing.

Harries will succeed Reginald Mayo as superintendent of New Haven Public Schools.

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