The Elm City is facing a once-in-a-decade chance to change the structure of city education.
Members of the New Haven charter revision commission, a group that is convened once every 10 years to examine and propose changes to the city’s charter, debated education reform at a Tuesday evening meeting. The commission ultimately recommended that two of the seven members of the New Haven Board of Education should be elected — currently all seven are appointed by the mayor — and that an additional two students should be included on the board as nonvoting members. The five nonelected members of the Board of Education, in the recommendation, would be appointed by the mayor but require approval from the Board of Aldermen, which is currently not the case.
According to commission member Melissa Mason, those who testified at public hearings showed a strong demand for a more responsive Board of Education. She said that the final recommendation, which will ultimately go before the Board of Aldermen and voters for final approval, meets this demand without completely overhauling the existing structure.
“Our proposal offers two seats and an opportunity to voice consent or dissent without guaranteeing in any way or form a major transformation of policy,” Mason said.
Commission member and Community Foundation for Greater New Haven President Will Ginbserg, however, argued that Board of Aldermen approval for mayoral appointees to the Board of Education would be sufficient to enable public input, while the presence of two elected members would diminish the accountability of the mayor.
“I fear that diluting the mayor’s authority over the Board of Education dilutes mayoral accountability and therefore works against achieving a Board structure that is focused on outcomes and execution,” Ginsberg said. “With all due respect to the engagement point, I think that’s not the point of the Board: The point is accountability for outcomes.”
Ginsberg added that citizens already have many opportunities to engage in the education process by voting for the city’s mayor.
Commission member Nilda Aponte said there was an “outcry” for public engagement and that public hearings made it clear that constituents feel their interests are not currently represented by the Board of Education. Aponte added that she had personal experience trying and failing to get parents’ opinions heard by the Board.
But commission member Arlene Depino supported Ginsberg and said that she thinks that opening two positions up for election would invite “special interests” to influence the election. Having the Board of Aldermen vet mayoral appointees would give voters more influence over the process while avoiding her concerns, she said.
The commission also recommended that the mayor, who currently sits on the Board as a voting member, should no longer be a member.
“Part of the problem we’ve had in the past 20 years is that even though people say the mayor has no influence over the Board, I don’t think the people actually feel that,” said commission member Carmen Reyes, who explained that the mayor’s presence on the Board can “pressure” other Board members into voting a certain way. “He does have control over the Board, and that’s been part of the problem we’ve had so far.”
The present commissioners also unanimously voted to add two spots on the Board for non-voting student members. These members could express their views and participate in discussion but would be barred from voting due to the minimum age requirement. Aponte said that since education policy affects students directly, she thinks it would be appropriate for them to “express their voice” on the Board.
The commission must send its final recommendations to the Board of Aldermen for approval by May. Once approved by the Board, the charter revision recommendations will go before voters in November.