Say you had $40,000 to improve public education in New Haven. How would you spend it?
Perhaps you’d improve upon the new restorative-justice programs that are being implemented in schools citywide: For instance, some middle-school students in New Haven are being trained as “peer mediators,” resolving conflicts between their younger peers, with great success. Parent advocates on the Citywide Parent Team, one of the most vocal advocates for investing in restorative practices, would agree with you.
Perhaps you’d raise the pay of New Haven’s paraprofessionals — multitasking classroom aides who provide teachers with critical support but are often paid less than $20,000 a year. Mayor Toni Harp, who has proposed steep raises in paraprofessional pay, would agree with you.
Or perhaps, you would give that entire sum to two law firms so that the Board of Alders — New Haven’s legislature — can sue the city’s Board of Education. The Alders would agree — that’s what they chose to do.
Let me first outline the remarkably trivial nature of this conflict in broad strokes.
In 2013, the Board of Alders amended the City Charter, New Haven’s constitution. One of the changes was to reduce the number of mayoral appointees on the Board of Education from six to five, while adding two new elected members.
But after the new members were elected in 2015, the charter provided no guidance on how to reduce the number of mayoral appointees on the board from six to five. None of the members’ terms were set to expire, and the city’s chief lawyer advised the Board of Education that they could not remove a member “without cause.” So in December, the Board of Education voted unanimously to allow an eight-member “transition” board until 2017. Then, two appointed members’ terms will expire, and Harp will appoint one successor. (And here’s where the drama begins.)
The Board of Alders disagreed and, days later, passed a resolution calling for the immediate removal of board member Daisy Gonzalez — someone who had been confirmed by the alders little more than a year prior.
Harp and the Board of Education stood their ground, and Gonzalez continued attending meetings.
Then, in an improbably absurd act of escalation, the Board of Alders sued the Board of Education.
Let me state the obvious: New Haven is not wealthy. It raises the bulk of its revenue from property taxes — a daunting feat when most of the land in the city is nontaxable, including Yale, public parks, hospitals and schools. The rest of its budget comes from unreliable and underfunded aid packages from the state government. This means that funding for police, firefighters, public health and education is already stretched thin.
But despite these realities, the city is now paying tens of thousands of dollars to two lawyers so that it can sue itself.
The Board of Alders is behaving outrageously. To be clear, the city charter is nothing to be treated lightly. But we should not waste valuable resources fighting to remove a sitting member from the Board of Education (not to mention the only current New Haven Public School parent on the body) in the middle of her term without cause. The Board of Education’s plan would mean that they would be fully compliant with the charter in under a year. Is that so unacceptable? And if the alders are so concerned that an eight-member board might be “subject to lawsuits,” as they claim, why are they trying to solve the problem by filing suit themselves? The Citywide Parent Team has offered to mediate the dispute for free — the alders should take them up on that offer rather than paying $250 an hour to their attorney.
Since Harp was inaugurated, her office and the Board of Education have worked together to champion many exciting initiatives for New Haven’s youth: restorative practices in schools, an early-literacy campaign, an exciting new teen center and the nationally recognized Youth Stat program to support at-risk youth. In contrast, the Board of Alders has focused most of its energy on solving New Haven’s job crisis. While their efforts have been important and worthwhile, it begs the question: Why the sudden interest in the Board of Education, and why this issue in particular?
The truth is that this lawsuit will likely have absolutely zero bearing on the care and education New Haven students receive. Rather, it’s a nakedly political wrestling match between the city’s different power players, and a distraction from the very real issues in New Haven’s public schools.
Students deserve far better. The Board of Alders should drop the lawsuit and use the money to bolster the efforts to improve schools that are currently underway. Maybe it is the New Haven middle-school students who could teach the alders a thing or two about how to productively resolve schoolyard disputes.
Fish Stark is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .