Tensions were high on Monday at the first New Haven Board of Education meeting of the year, where concerns about personal conflicts and unnecessary spending were at the front of the agenda.
Last month, the New Haven Independent revealed that Mayor Toni Harp hired Hartford attorney Andrew Crumbie to look into allegations that Superintendent Carol Birks was “uncomfortable” with Board of Education President Darnell Goldson. Although the inquiry ended on Friday with no findings of wrongdoing, news of the conflict escalated public concerns about the ability of city officials to collaborate effectively. At the Jan. 14 meeting, Birks clarified that there was no physical harassment listed in her complaint and that all issues with Goldson had been resolved.
“To be clear, any concerns about Mr. Goldson were related to defining our roles and responsibilities, our professional roles and responsibility,” Birks told meeting attendees. “This is just to say that the falsehoods and speculations resulting from the process resulted in a distraction for all of us.”
After the inquiry began, speculations about the conflict between Goldson and Birks spread throughout the district. Birks told meeting attendees that she was “saddened” by the amount of rumors that rose about the accusations she made and said that she never requested an official investigation.
Conflicts between the Board and Birks have plagued the district since the Superintendent’s appointment. Last summer, Board members criticized Birks for laying off 1,153 part-time employees without consulting the Board of Education, resulting in this decision being reversed. Since then, there have been several reports of the Board clashing with the Superintendent over district decisions — centering around everything from suspension hearings to budget decisions.
At the beginning of Monday’s meeting, Goldson was unanimously re-elected as Board President, with Jamell Cotto as Vice President and Tamiko Jackson-McArthur as Secretary.
“Sometimes I might be very passionate in making sure that my fellow Board members and the Superintendent did follow the rules,” Goldson said in a statement following elections. “It has been a little tough to deal with because it really affected me personally and my work life. It is not going to stop me from serving.”
Goldson also alluded to rumors about the nature of his interactions with Birks, saying that he was upset with “confusing accusations” that spread during the inquiry.
During the meeting, Birks and Goldson clashed over solutions to the districtwide debt. Birks declined to respond to the Board President’s push for her to disclose plans to find more sources of funding for the district — noting that she would rather have a “one-on-one conversation” with Board members.
Goldson highlighted that the Board has managed to decrease the budget deficit to $8.9 million from $20 million last spring. He attributed much of this success to the work of the Board and financial consultant Management Solutions — a company that has provided financial advising because the district does not employ a chief financial officer.
During the public comment section of Monday’s meeting, several community members expressed frustration with what they regard as a lack of cooperation between those who make powerful decisions regarding the city’s education system.
Meeting attendees said that Board relationships were distracting from the current budget deficit and student performance issues.
“We never should have hired a lawyer,” said Rev. Kelcy Steele of the Varick Memorial AME Zion Church. “The two of you should have gotten in the Mayor’s office and figured it out. The lack of transparency is astounding to me.”
Nijija Ife-Waters, the president of the parent organization Citywide Parent Team, told Board members they should redirect attention to the parent complaints the Citywide Parent Team has received.
Ife-Waters specifically noted complications with the magnet school application process.
“The fish rots from the head. We have to do better, people,” she said at the meeting.
The Finance and Operations Committee of the Board of Education will next meet on Jan. 21.
Carolyn Sacco | firstname.lastname@example.org