Isabel Bysiewicz

Superintendent of Schools Carol Birks presented her three-part plan to move the district forward amid tough financial times to the New Haven Board of Education for the first time at the school board’s meeting on Monday.

After months of turnover, the New Haven Board of Education’s membership is likely set as Birks and board member Joseph Rodriguez took their prospective seats on the board on March 26. Birks, New Haven’s first female superintendent, began her term last week. Rodriguez, who was approved by the Board of Alders on March 19, will preside over the board’s Student Elections Committee.

“I am extremely grateful and honored to serve as your superintendent,” Birks said. “We have a great deal of intellectual discourse going on, and everyone’s passionate, but we need to accelerate and get some action going.”

Birks gave an overview of her three-part plan for her first three months on the job. During her “listening and learning” phase, Birks plans to conduct community forums throughout the city and hold town hall meetings with New Haven Public Schools employees. Birks then plans to conduct an evaluation of qualitative and quantitative district data — such as curricula, collective bargaining agreements and board policies — to learn about the beliefs and practices about education held in the district during her “focus and frame” phase. During her final phase, “empower and accelerate,” Birks hopes to improve the district using the strengths of the schools to inspire innovation.

Facing a projected $6.7 million deficit for the 2018 fiscal year, which ends in June 2018, the Board of Education will have to plan carefully. Darrell Hill, the school board’s part-time chief financial officer, presented the district’s budget reduction strategies, which include freezing nonessential hiring and related nonpersonnel budget, reducing the magnet school budget, reviewing and reducing contracted services and collaborating with administrators to make additional room for cuts.

“Our expenditures are outpacing our revenues,” Hill said. “There are pieces of good work throughout the organization … That good work needs to be combined and organized with key decisions made to provide us with what is a well-developed and comprehensive budget.”

Birks came to New Haven from Hartford, where she served as chief of staff to the superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, a position in which she advised the superintendent and served as the key contact to school staff and community members. Previously, Birks served as both a principal and assistant principal at Harding High School in Bridgeport, as well as an assistant principal at Hamden Public Schools.

A former two-term Ward 15 Alder, Rodriguez was tapped by Mayor Toni Harp in February. He left his position in 2011 to work in the office of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, D-Conn. In addition, Rodriguez served under Harp as a liaison to the Board of Alders from 2014 to 2016. After the terms of former mayor John DeStefano’s appointees Che Dawson and Carlos Torre ended last December, Rodriguez took the final seat on the seven-member school board of education. Rodriguez is the fourth mayoral appointee on the school board, and his term will end in December 2021.

During Monday’s meeting, parents from the NHPS Advocates — a group that formed during the contentious yearlong superintendent search and that was opposed to Birks’ appointment — welcomed the new superintendent and Rodriguez. According to member Fatima Rojas, the NHPS Advocates has met with Rodriguez, and recent board appointment Tamiko Jackson-McArthur in the past few weeks.

“We look forward to working with [Rodriguez and Birks] and creating a great relationship because we’re all here for the same reason,” NHPS Advocates member Maritza Baez said.

Kirsten Hopes-McFadden, a teacher and parent at Engineering and Sciences University and Magnet School, said she hopes Birks’ smooth transition is the beginning of a successful relationship with the public. She said she was impressed that Birks had already met with many stakeholders in the district. And school board member Ed Joyner — who voted against Birks’ approval last November — said he is optimistic about the leadership of New Haven schools.

The New Haven Board of Education’s new facility-naming committee, which is chaired by board member Jamell Cotto, held its first meeting on Monday. According to Cotto, the committee has already received three new suggestions, including for the library at Barnard Environmental Magnet School, for the bridge above Ella Grasso Boulevard next to the Barnard school, and for the Strong-21st Century Communications Magnet and SCSU Lab School.

In addition, Cotto introduced a resolution to establish a food service task group composed of the superintendent of schools or her designee, the food services director, two parents, two students, two representatives of food advocacy groups and two school board members appointed by Board President Darnell Goldson at Monday’s meeting. The task force will monitor the food program, receive feedback from parents, students and school staff members and address questions and concerns, according to the resolution.

“I think that this is long overdue,” Jackson-McArthur said. “I hope that this committee really diligently works to find a better option to offer our children.”

New Haven Board of Education meetings are held on the second and fourth Monday of each month.

Isabel Bysiewicz |