Education officials came before the Board of Alders’ Finance Committee Thursday evening to make their case for the Board of Education’s requested budget for fiscal year 2017.
The BOE’s requested budget would increase the city’s contribution by $5 million, from $226.5 million this year to $231.5 million next year. One of its more controversial proposals is the $10.7 million allocated for the construction of a new location for the Strong School — currently situated in The Hill — on the campus of Southern Connecticut State University. That proposal is identical to the one the alders rejected when it was included in Mayor Toni Harp’s proposed budget last spring.
“We believe this new building for the Strong School at SCSU serves the city’s educational interests. This is an opportunity for an exciting partnership with SCSU,” Superintendent Garth Harries ’95 said. “We believe it’s a project that meets the city’s financial and capital interests.”
According to Harries, the construction of a new Strong School would benefit the city in three respects. A new school, he said, would aid educational interests by providing adequate classroom space and up-to-date technology for students. And investing in a new school would end up costing the city less than keeping up the current one, he said, adding that “workforce interests” — job creation — also come into play.
Harries urged alders to approve the Strong School proposal this year instead of pushing the issue to a future date. Given the precarious fiscal situation of the state of Connecticut, the state’s promise of tens of millions in grant funding for the school’s construction might not be available after the end of this fiscal year.
Responding to a question from Hill Alder David Reyes, BOE Chief Operations Officer William Clark said the proposed Strong School would only serve students from kindergarten through fourth grade. Harries said demographic projections predict the city’s population of students in those grades will increase in future years, making the need for a new, fully modernized facility all the more pressing.
Westville Alder Adam Marchand GRD ’99 noted that an argument advanced by Strong School proponents is that the school’s location on the SCSU campus would provide a “pipeline” for SCSU students to learn the skills necessary to become teachers in the New Haven system. He asked Harries whether the school system is currently holding conversations with SCSU about those possibilities.
“We’d have a number of those programs, and SCSU has been a very good partner for us in terms of providing placements in New Haven,” Harries said. “Quite frankly, there are some places in the state that would not recommend their students take a position in New Haven, but Southern has been a great partner.”
For Morris Cove Alder Salvatore DeCola, the $5 million spending hikes are just another entry in a long and seemingly inexorable line of increases. In heated remarks, he excoriated BOE officials for requesting spending increases that impose burdens on the taxpayer without any identifiable results.
“The taxpayers cannot handle it anymore,” DeCola said. “I have 1,400 single-family houses in my ward, and they’re telling me that they can’t handle the mill rate. Where’s the good stewardship here? … We’re basing everything on grants, and it’s going to dry up. What’s plan B? What’s plan C? My people, in my ward, cannot afford another mill increase.”
DeCola criticized what he said was a lack of “outside-of-the-box” thinking on behalf of BOE officials, noting that sources of grant funding might eventually dry up. Combined with possible state cuts, the city could end up facing an unsustainable fiscal situation, he said.
The public school system has not been without controversy over the last year, especially with regards to the district’s high rate of teacher absences. Reyes, citing a report in the New Haven Independent, asked the BOE officials about the district’s efforts to stem teacher absences.
Harries, noting that education is a “tough field,” said much of the teacher absence problem results from low teacher morale, especially stemming from frustrations with poor student behavior that often begins on social media and continues in the classroom.
Elected BOE member Darnell Goldson said the board has been working on developing plans to address teacher absenteeism.
The New Haven Public Schools system comprises 48 separate public schools.