New Haven Public Schools students are set to return to the classroom on Thursday, but, behind the scenes, the Board of Education is trying to sort out an array of major policy and budgetary issues.

To reduce its lingering deficit, the school board has worked to cut spending where it can. The seven-member school board voted to close down three New Haven schools in May and approved staff cuts this month. In a financial presentation at the school board’s biweekly meeting on Monday, Chief Financial Officer Darrell Hill said the district currently faces an $8.4 million deficit for the upcoming school year.

“We need to look at how we are allocating funds,” board member Joseph Rodriguez said during the meeting. “[The Board needs] to rethink the budgetary process.”

In addition to spending reductions, the school district is seeking financial support from outside groups. The school board is discussing a contract with the Weiss Institute, which Superintendent Carol Birks said could provide the district with financial consulting free of charge.

Board of Education Vice President Jamell Cotto said he originally approved of the Weiss Institute because he thought the organization focused on financial consulting. But after learning that the group’s primary function is actually funding scholarships, he and other board members became concerned that the Weiss Institute’s work would overlap with New Haven Promise’s pre-existing scholarship programs.

To ensure the district’s financial transactions are transparent, Hill said he plans to present an update on the district’s expenditures at the Board of Education meetings on a monthly basis. In July, the district spent $2.79 million — or 1.49 percent of the adopted budget. The summer months usually see a substantial dip in spending since school is not in full session.

At a special meeting on Aug. 21, 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 the beginning of classes. Birks said that her administration is looking to focus on finding ways to hire more full-time and fewer part-time employees.

Still, during the public portion of the school board’s meetings, community members voiced concerns over staff reductions in schools and policies that they characterized as unorganized. At the Aug. 27 meeting, Sarah Miller ’03 — a parent of two children in the district — said she is worried about sending her sons to school this week following a hectic summer in the school district. The library media specialist at her child’s school was recently cut.

“I am here to tell you that I am concerned for my kids and their peers,” Miller said. “This announcement feels like pouring salt in a wound given that our school is already under-resourced.”

Miller is a member of the New Haven Public Schools Advocates, a parent- and community-run organization formed after a prolonged search for a new superintendent. At each meeting, the group reads a list of questions for the school board in an effort to improve transparency.

In a push to increase the public’s power in the city’s education structure, the New Haven Public Schools Advocates will hold a meeting with the city’s Board of Alders on Sept. 24 to discuss the Board of Education mayoral appointees, which must be approved by the city’s legislative body. Over 1,000 New Haven citizens have signed their petition to require Board of Education mayoral appointees to have some expertise in education, demonstrate commitment to public education and have no personal or financial conflicts of interests.

“Since there is currently only one member of the board with background in education, we consider it a top priority to seek out this expertise in the next appointee,” the petition reads. “We also consider it vital that parameters are formalized and communicated to the public in advance of considering any new appointee.”

The New Haven Board of Education meets the second and fourth Monday of each month.

Isabel Bysiewicz |