Alders Begin School Governance Reforms

isaacstanleybecker_boardofeducation
Photo by Isaac Stanley-Becker.

Transforming the city’s founding document was simple, in comparison.

More difficult is the present task: putting those changes — still merely textual, eight months after charter revision took effect — into practice. Perhaps the most fundamental changes concern the makeup of the city’s Board of Education, which sets policy for the school district and oversees a nearly $400 million budget. Voters approved the reorganization of the Board as part of a package of revisions placed on the ballot following the required once-a-decade process of charter reform last year.

vote not only for a mayor and an alder but also for a representative on the Board of Education. Under the revised charter, the city must be divided into two “education districts” by Jan. 1, 2015.

The sole stipulation for the division is that each district includes an equal number of wards “to the extent practicable.”

City Plan Director Karyn Gilvarg ARC ’75 said the city has a geographic information system that maps the population spatially based on data from the 2010 census. Though the city is neatly divided into 30 census tracts, these block groupings do not correspond to the city’s 30 wards. The city’s two state senatorial districts — one potentially simple division — do not have an equal share of the population, she said.

Other divisions — north and south, east and west — might slice the city up along complicated demographic lines, alders said. Black residents are more concentrated in the west side of the city, while the east side comprises more whites and Latinos.

In addition to who will vote where, another unanswered question Monday was who can run.

Leslie Blatteau ’97, who works in the public schools, said she hopes employees of the school district are eligible to run. Because current Board members have ties to ConnCAN, an education advocacy group, and Achievement First, a charter school network, members of the teachers’ union should not be barred, Blatteau argued.

Also fraught is the question of who will draw the two education districts: alders themselves or an independent body. Rachel Heerema, executive director of the Citywide Youth Coalition, urged the joint committee to take the matter out of alders’ hands and instead name a “nonpartisan committee” that would remove politics from the process.

Should alders be in charge of deciding how their own wards are divvied up, Heerema said, they might gerrymander districts for political reasons.

“I might decide that a certain person should be elected and so make sure my political ally’s ward is in the same district as mine so they can support my choice,” she elaborated after the meeting.

Particularly troubling, she said, is the prospect of an already powerful interest group in the city, including Yale’s UNITE HERE unions or the Democratic Town Committee, using the process to seek greater sway. Equally problematic would be any other interest coming to dominate the districting process, she said. The majority of sitting alders won election with the backing of the blue-and-pink-collar unions; about a half-dozen work as employees or stewards for the unions.

Local 34 President Laurie Kennington ’01 and Local 35 President Bob Proto did not return phone messages and emails requesting comment Tuesday.

Board of Education President Carlos Torre echoed Heerema’s concern, saying elections invariably open the process to politics. But Downtown Alder Abby Roth ’90 LAW ’9Jan. 1, 2016. Administrators said Monday they are eager to expedite the process, perhaps selecting students as early as the beginning of 2015.

“We think this is an important part of the development of the Board of Ed,” NHPS Superintendent Garth Harries ’95 said at the meeting. “We want to get the students involved as soon as possible.”

Among the decisions alders will make is how the students will be chosen. One option is a citywide election. Kimberly Sullivan — a rising junior at the Sound School — was among five students from the Citywide Student Council who urged alders Monday night to put the vote to the council instead.

The students suggested that the 70 to 100 members of the council could vote for the two representatives, which would also come from that body. A more narrow field would ensure the election does not devolve into a “popularity contest,” Sullivan said. The council also levels the playing field between larger and smaller student bodies, she added.

Xavier Milling, a rising senior at James Hillhouse High School, agreed, testifying that council members have more experience dealing with districtwide issues.

But administrators and advocates seemed to favor direct democracy. Torre said that a citywide election would be efficient and would increase student engagement.

Our schools are the least democratic place in all of society,” Torre said. “[A citywide vote] would give students a taste of democracy and get them engaged.”

If the city were committed to involving young people, the students said, their representatives would be given voting power on the Board. State law dictates that minors otherwise ineligible to vote may not vote on school boards.

Alders assured students the positions would still have sway, primarily as a mouthpiece for student interests. “Sometimes I listen to you more than [the adults],” East Rock Alder Anna Festa said.

When Committee Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 asked the students whether their peers knew about the revised charter, the five students said they themselves barely understood it.

“It just got explained to me 20 minutes ago, so I’m guessing they don’t know about it,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan and her peers emphasized social media as a tool to inform high school students.

Morris Cove Alder Sal DeCola said the students who testified — all ineligible to run as juniors, seniors or graduates — could help increase awareness about the revision by mentoring freshmen to run next year as sophomores.

The Connecticut Board of Education includes two student members, as do most state school boards. Most student representatives are selected by district officials, not their peers.

Clarification: Aug. 27, 2014

This article has been clarified to indicate that concerns about districting were not limited to the role of Yale’s unions but that the potential influence of Locals 34 and 35 was among a number of factors affecting sources’ desire for a nonpartisan districting committee.

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