Carolyn Sacco

On Monday, the New Haven Finance and Operations Committee discussed the current fiscal year’s $5.3 million deficit currently plaguing the Board of Education — which member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur called “financially cataclysmic.”

While the projected deficit for this fiscal year totaled $8.9 million when New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Carol Birks first presented next year’s budget to the public in February, Birks’ staff managed to decrease the deficit by more than one-third. According to a new budget report presented by Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Leadership Keisha Redd-Hannans on Monday, any remaining cuts to the deficit would involve certified staff cuts, which would decrease the deficit by $4,146,872. But several committee members and Birks herself stressed that these cuts were hypothetical and that no action has been taken to actually implement them.

“Unlike the mitigation between the 8.9 and the 5.3, which didn’t cause any pain, if we have to mitigate the 5.3, it’s going to cause a lot of pain across the system,” Redd-Hannans said.

According to Redd-Hannans, smaller cuts — in addition to staff cuts — would impact noncertified staff, part-time workers and nonpersonnel matters. Savings of this kind would cover the remaining $1,149,614 of the deficit. As with certified staff cuts, Birks and committee members stressed that these cuts are not actually happening as of now, but would be the current plan if the Board of Education needed to slash the deficit to zero by Monday’s meeting. Still, according to Hannans, there is currently no “Plan B.”

Members discussed other methods of reducing the deficit besides staff cuts at the biweekly meeting. The members noted that furloughs would be effective in some capacity, but the negotiations with multiple city unions that are required to implement a furlough would be a challenge given the Board of Education’s timeline, according to board members at the meeting. The fiscal year ends on June 30.

According to a Jim Finley, principal consultant for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, the only option for the Board of Education so late in the fiscal year besides a city “bailout” would be a “furlough-type situation.” A furlough would entail city workers leaving work for a period of time and forfeiting their wages for that period.

“For the city to absorb a five-million-dollar hit that they didn’t budget for is kind of an unrealistic option, I would think, especially in this short period of time,” said Finley. “The biggest cost in any school district would be personnel cost … so if you’re looking to find savings, you have to find them in the personnel area.”

According to Rodriguez, if the board cannot completely slash its debt, then the city of New Haven is legally obligated to absorb the debt. Hannans admitted that the city has shouldered the board’s debt a number of times — including in the past two fiscal years.

Committee member Joseph Rodriguez stated that he does not want to push the burden of debt onto the city if another solution exists, adding that “this body and previous bodies” should have taken deeper steps to prevent such a significant deficit.

“I am uncomfortable, yes, telling our friends on the city side, that this is where we are, but I’m also equally uncomfortable telling my daughter’s teacher, or any child’s teacher, that within 30 days or so, that they’re going to potentially lose their job,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t in good faith as a father do that, knowing the disruption that would occur in schools.”

Other cuts could potentially come from closing or consolidating schools. However, according to New Haven Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Michael Pinto, the savings associated with consolidation would not significantly offset the costs. For example, the committee discussed combining West Rock Academy with the Barack H. Obama School, closing the West Rock location and relocating those students to the newer magnet school. Pinto noted that both schools differ so much in programming that if the merger went through, the Barack H. Obama School would lose 132 seats for bilingual students. He added that out-of-district students at West Rock would have to relocate to their home districts as a result of the merger. The loss of students and programming would result in a $1.3 million loss in federal funding.

“We currently find ourselves in the right direction but we’re not there yet,” said Rodriguez. “So we will continue to work with the superintendent’s office, our colleagues and other stakeholders, in hopes of mitigating that 5.3 million.”

Rodriguez added that he looks forward to the work of the newly formed deficit mitigation committee, which board members approved at last Monday’s full board meeting at Celentano Magnet School.

The Board of Education hosts regular meetings on the second and fourth Mondays of every month.

Valerie Pavilonis | valeria.pavilonis@yale.edu