Valerie Pavilonis

Tensions were high at the New Haven Board of Education meeting on Tuesday as rumors of forced furloughs made their way around the district.

During the public comment section of Tuesday’s meeting, parents and teachers from around the Elm City criticized lack of funding to preserve jobs in the district. As the school system’s financial troubles loom large, parents and teachers cited a $15,650 contract with a New Jersey–based contractor Leverett Consulting for a one-day November 2018 scheduled retreat by board members and the district’s superintendent. They argued that the spending was unnecessary and called for greater budget accountability from the board.

This summer, the Board of Education sent shock waves through the Elm City when the school’s central administration sent layoff notices to over 1,000 employees. Despite public outrage, 28 educators — including guidance counselors, teachers and librarians — were ultimately laid off. Since the beginning of the school year, there have been few updates about potential layoffs in the future. The district is currently facing a budget shortfall of $8.6 million.

At the meeting, parents and teachers expressed frustration that the Board would spend thousands on a one-day retreat. Leverett Consulting charges $118.75 per hour — in addition to over $12,000 in funds for planning and $1,400 in travel costs — according to the New Haven Independent. Although the board pulled the contract this weekend because one of the consultants had a health emergency, they are still hoping to use Leverett or another comparable consulting group for a rescheduled retreat, according to superintendent Carol Birks.

“We want to create a culture of continuous learning with a high-functioning team,” Superintendent Carol Birks told the News about the retreat. “One of the goals of the district is to build our team, and it is important to provide the board with opportunities to learn and grow as well.”

The Board of Education members held retreats with the superintendent in May and July, following the layoff crisis and the controversial decisions to close three schools in the district — New Horizons School for Higher Achievement, New Light High School and Cortlandt V.R. Creed High School.

At the Tuesday meeting, Robert Gibson, a retired teacher from James Hillhouse High School, expressed doubts about the necessity of a board retreat and questioned whether it was mandated by the state. He emphasized that the funds from the retreat could be used towards a part-time guidance counselor or other student service worker.

Other attendees criticized the disconnect between spending on Board resources and spending on educators. As of Nov. 1, the city of New Haven is requiring all nonunion employees to take three unpaid furlough days this fiscal year, and teachers expressed concern that they would be forced to take unpaid days off as well because of the district’s debt.

“There is recent talk of furlough days again,” said Kirsten Hopes-McFadden, a teacher at Engineering Science University Magnet Middle and High School and a candidate for the vice presidency of the New Haven Federation of Teachers. “Furlough days will not be brought before the union unless there is a guarantee of no more layoffs for two years.”

Hopes-McFadden added that she would usually take her concerns to the Federation of Teachers but said that she was so “deeply disturbed” by teachers’ stress surrounding job security that she had to come before the board directly. At the Finance and Operations meeting last Monday, Birks assured the Board that there were no plans for furlough or other layoffs currently.

Board member Edward Joyner said that he was hesitant to support the retreat because the district should be cutting costs wherever possible.

Before the general board meeting, attendees voiced their opinions on the Elm City Montessori School’s charter to board members. Nearly every speaker argued in favor of the charter’s renewal. While speakers mostly included parents and employees from the various schools in New Haven, several Engineering Science University Magnet Middle and High School students also gave speeches praising their school, prompting wide applause from the audience.

After the hearing, board members heard from Montessori school Principal Julia Webb and Executive Director Eliza Halsey before voting to recommend Montessori’s charter renewal to the State Board of Education. Although several board members expressed concerns about the cost of keeping the school open, Joyner was the sole member to vote “no” because of the school system’s budget deficit.

“There are eight million elephants in this room and there are thousands of kids in this district,” he said. “I have to vote no. It’s going to get worse for this city before it gets better.”

Superintendent Birks will be recommending new districtwide goals to New Haven’s board on Dec. 10.

Carolyn Sacco | carolyn.sacco@yale.edu

Valerie Pavilonis | jack.pavilonis@yale.edu