It is infuriating to pick up a copy of the New Haven Register to read that Ben Hunter, an associate principal at Hillhouse High School may have stolen more than $5,000 from a city-run youth basketball league last summer. There are so many reasons that this story is maddening: the defendant earns $92,477 annually already, and his job is to guarantee the welfare of children who may have participated in the program he allegedly ripped off. New Haven’s public schools, despite an ambitious infrastructure campaign, continue to struggle; No Child Left Behind standards and state testing programs labeled 18 of them failing — it is especially cruel for an educational administrator to benefit on the backs of students. But the main reason this story is a cause for outrage is this: City Controller Mark Pietrosimone, who is overseeing the audit of the league’s records told the Register that “he also expects to recommend procedural changes to limit the potential for payroll abuses. ‘When you have one individual handling all aspects of the program, you have the potential of this happening … There should be a clear separation of duties.'”
We’ve been here before. Mayor John DeStefano made a strong stand against former Alderman Willie Greene’s mismanagement of the Dixwell Community House (Q House) funds a key part of his reelection campaign. He argued that the patronage politics that have left the Q House hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and robbed Dixwell’s kids of a crucial center of community life shouldn’t be allowed to continue.
And then it happens again? Maybe it’s time for some procedural changes?
This situation is ridiculous. Someone needs to deliver the message, in a voice louder and clearer than City Hall’s, that it is not OK to steal from New Haven’s kids, that benefiting on the backs of children is not just completely unacceptable, it’s disgraceful. This seems pretty straightforward to most of us. But apparently, it’s not getting across in New Haven.
There is no reason that excellent, incorruptible youth programming is impossible here. Elm City Congregations Organized runs a youth soccer league that recently produced a city-wide championship team. This league, along with its winter basketball programs, is exactly what New Haven needs. The teams are entirely about the kids who participate in them and they are run by a group of selfless volunteers.
New Haven is full of talented, smart kids. They win international competitions as part of Dixwell’s Drum Corps, and study a wide variety of subjects in the city’s increasingly diverse and creative magnet school system (even when they can’t get into neighborhood schools and have to be bussed or driven to school across town). They play all sorts of sports, and argue about issues in school assemblies. And like all kids, they deserve schools staffed by administrators who care about them, and excellent after school and summer programs that are run by people who are committed to them and that won’t see their funding go mysteriously missing because someone is cooking the books.
A group of city officials, nonprofit representatives, and youth advocates should convene immediately to establish a set of strong standards for accounting and bookeeping. An independent auditor should be hired to examine the budgets of youth programs and guarantee their integrity and transparency. Administrators hired to run such programs should have to attend a training explicitly outlining what constitutes fraud and be prepared to regularly justify all expenditures. Anyone who has been remotely implicated in fraudulent dealings with funding for youth programs should be barred from future work that involves spending decisions, and anyone being given a second chance should be replaced as soon as possible. New Haven needs a zero-tolerance attitude toward fraud, and the work towards establishing that attitude should begin immediately.
Because, frankly, New Haven’s kids have been ripped off often enough. The Q House still isn’t open, and proposals for a new youth center nearby seem suspiciously like an attempt to divert attention and energy from a situation that many people simply aren’t interested in dealing with anymore. And that’s not good enough.
Anyone who condemns a culture of corruption and patronage should be prepared to do the hard work to make sure that six months after the primary elections, it doesn’t happen all over again. Anyone who steals from New Haven’s kids should have to pay. If Ben Hunter is guilty of fraud, perhaps he can start by working off that $5,000 at minimum wage. I know a community center and a couple of sports programs that could use a grant writer.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a sophomore in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.