New Haven Public Schools are in financial crisis and could benefit from an audit — but a recent contract proposal by the district superintendent to obtain a third-party analysis appears to violate state law.

At the Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, board members discussed a contract with the Weiss Institute — an arm of the Say Yes to Education nonprofit that has offered to provide financial analysis to the district free of charge, according to Superintendent of New Haven Public Schools Carol Birks.

But school board member Jamell Cotto, who serves as vice chairman of the board’s finance and operations committee, distributed a state statute — Public Act No. 16-189 — that says any program involving student data must include 16 specific clauses to safeguard student privacy. School board members said that, as it’s currently written, the contract with the Weiss Institute gives the organization access to student data and does not include the 16 clauses.

“Some people say don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” said Board of Education President Darnell Goldson. “I’m saying look this gift horse in the stomach, because this could be a Trojan horse.”

Ultimately, in a 4–3 vote, school board members decided to table a motion to approve the contract between the district and the Weiss Institute. Mayor Toni Harp introduced a motion for Birks to enter a memorandum of understanding with the institute, hoping to clarify the language and alleviate board member’s concerns.

This particular legal issue also came up this summer when the school board discussed a contract with the New Haven Lexinome Project, a joint venture between Yale and New Haven Public Schools, which uses saliva samples to identify children at risk of developing dyslexia. In July, the school board decided to table that contract.

After the Weiss proposal was discussed, the debate moved to the broader fiscal issues the district is facing. Board member Ed Joyner said that the body must answer some serious fiscal questions.

“We have the most serious fiscal problems I’ve seen since I’ve been in New Haven for the past 50 years,” Joyner said. “[Goldson] and I have campaigned for the past 2 1/2 years for fiscal transparency, to learn how we spend money, why we spend money.”

Facing a projected $19 million budget deficit this year, Birks and the board voted in May to close Cortlandt V.R. Creed High School, an interdistrict magnet located in temporary quarters in North Haven, and consolidate three alternative schools into one.

As the board grapples with difficult questions, community members have not been hesitant to voice concerns. In a letter earlier this week, representatives from the Citywide Student Council, the Citywide Youth Coalition, New Haven Educators’ Collective, New Haven People’s Center, New Haven Public School Advocates, New Haven Rising, People for Race and Ethnicity Studies Today, the Southern Connecticut State University Urban Education Fellows and Unidad Latina en Acción urged Birks and the board to rethink strategies to cut the school system’s deficit.

The letter asks the board to establish a moratorium on hiring new central office administrators while the district finds its financial footing, consolidate central office department and commit to eliminating 25 administrative positions.

“These steps would demonstrate to our students, families, educators, staff, and community a good faith effort to prioritize direct services to children while continuing to address the current financial crisis,” the letter states.

At the Aug. 27 Board of Education meeting, Chief Financial Officer Darrell Hill said the district currently faces an $8.4 million deficit for the upcoming school year.

Isabel Bysiewicz | isabel.bysiewicz@yale.edu