First there were layoffs; then there weren’t; then there were again — but not nearly as many. For the New Haven Public Schools system and new Superintendent Carol Birks it has been a turbulent summer.
On June 22, nearly 1,000 part-time and grant-funded New Haven Public Schools employees received word from the city’s school administration that they would soon be out of a job. According to Mayor Toni Harp, the letters were not sent to classroom teachers, but the dismissals spurred a wave of outrage and confusion across the district. At a June 25 Board of Education meeting, Birks said that she and her staff would work with school principals to reexamine the positions and rehire some of the dismissed employees, possibly to new roles.
“Generally, most districts tell employees who work part-time at the beginning of the school year that they work for a period of time,” Birks said after the meeting. “We didn’t do that. We didn’t provide that notification up front, so we wanted to make sure people understood that, at the end of the year, that part-time assignment would end.”
A week later, though, the school board rescinded the letters. Of the 1,153 who received layoff notices, 368 were not even on the school system’s payroll for the 2017–2018 school year, Board of Education President Darnell Goldson said. Those 368 people no longer worked in the New Haven school system, but their names remained in the district’s employee database.
After years of flat funding from the state and city and the loss of a major federal grant, the city’s school system finds itself with a nearly $20 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year.
Reevaluating staff positions was not the first step the school board had taken to try to find its fiscal footing. In May, it voted to close down three New Haven schools: the New Horizons School for Higher Achievement, the New Light High School and Cortland V.R. Creed Health and Sports Sciences School. The shutdowns are expected to save the district roughly $4.5 million in the upcoming fiscal year.
Since the June layoff incident, the Board of Education has worked to delineate the responsibilities and purview of the superintendent. According to the New Haven Independent, school board members have clarified that Birks should not be involved in decisions that would result in staff terminations.
“As a result of last week’s stumble, it is clear to this board that we need to provide additional support and guidance to the superintendent,” Goldson said at a press conference with Mayor Toni Harp after the notices were sent. “It was a simple mistake that we’re going to help her correct.”
Still, confusion surrounding layoffs continues. In late July, Birks sent notices of removal to over 30 full-time certified employees, including counselors, library media specialists and gym teachers. But at the August 13 Board of Education meeting, school board members voted unanimously to postpone the layoffs. The vote followed impassioned speeches against the layoffs by affected employees, parents and the two non-voting student members of the school board.
But at a special meeting just over a week later, the school board laid off 24 school of the 30 employees it had spared at the August 13 meeting. School board members unanimously passed the superintendent’s recommendation to lay off 15 school counselors, five library media specialists and four physical education teachers, a week before classes will start up again.
During the public portion of the school board’s meetings, the public has voiced concerns over staff reductions in the schools and confusion with unclear policies. Parents at Board meetings have emphasized the importance of transparency to school board members and urged community members to stay positive and involved in school matters. According to the New Haven Independent, the decision will save the school district around $1.2 billion.
“Let’s come together parents. Be visible, be vocal, stay in tune,” Citywide Parent Team President Krystal Augustine said in June. “Don’t get discouraged by whatever [the school board] can do … We are still going to be here and still do right by our children and the children in the community.”
New Haven Board of Education meetings are held the second and fourth Mondays of each month.
Isabel Bysiewicz | firstname.lastname@example.org