Carolyn Sacco

At its bimonthly meeting Monday, the New Haven Board of Education faced significant backlash for the Finance and Operations Committee’s decision last week to close Riverside Education Academy. But, board members stressed to a packed house of attendees that while the committee voted not to renew the lease on Riverside’s current building, the school itself is to be relocated — not closed.

At last week’s meeting, committee members declined to renew the leases of several buildings currently in use by New Haven Public Schools, including Riverside Education Academy at 560 Ella Grasso Blvd. The committee’s decisions came in the face of what board member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur called a “cataclysmic” $5.3 million deficit for the fiscal year and a projected total deficit of roughly $30 million for the next. Unless the board can slash the entire deficit by June 30 — the end of the fiscal year — the city of New Haven will be legally obligated to absorb the shortfall.

“We’re in the business of education,” said Engineering and Science University Magnet School teacher Kirsten Hopes-McFadden at Monday’s meeting. “The most important thing for education is stability. You have children here who are at Riverside and already have trauma that they’ve faced in their lives, they need somebody that they can see every day and know that they can count on.”

According to the school’s website, Riverside Education Academy provides individualized learning plans and allows flexible hours so that students can balance work and academics. It also offers programs designed to expose students to trade vocations like carpentry and cosmetology.

Riverside students testified at Monday’s meeting, urging board members to keep the current site open. One student, Kai Powe, emphasized that the Riverside community is welcoming. Through tears, she said, “Everybody is their own person, they’re unique.”

Another student credited Riverside for her academic improvement, saying that after being shifted between four different high schools in the same number of years, she was able to settle at Riverside and turn her failing grades into A and B marks.

Several members of the community noted that closing Riverside would be detrimental to students’ performance and mental health. While the board clarified after more than an hour of public testimonies that the school itself would only be relocated, many comments from the public stressed the importance of stability in student achievement.

Leslie Blatteau, a teacher at the Metropolitan Business Academy, said that if Riverside students were scattered into different high schools across New Haven, class sizes would increase. Blatteau then criticized a recent suggestion by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who said that larger class sizes aid in student learning.

After hearing testimonies, Board of Education President Darnell Goldson stated to attendees that while the Riverside building itself will not be leased for the next academic year, the district plans to keep the school’s current programs intact.

Joseph Rodriguez, who chaired last week’s Finance and Operations Committee meeting, said that last week’s discussions involved the Riverside building’s lease not the closure of the school itself. Board member Edward Joyner echoed Rodriguez. He said, “We never planned to close the school. Never.”

While New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Carol Birks could not attend Monday’s meeting due to a mandatory statewide conference, Assistant Superintendents Iline Tracey and Paul Whyte, who filled in for Birks, noted that a plan for transition is currently in the works. According to Goldson, however, the board first requested a transition plan in May of 2018 — and nearly a full year later, no such plan has been presented. Goldson then requested that Birks submit her proposal at the next full board meeting — which is scheduled for April 22.

According to Goldson, Riverside’s current rent is a half-million dollars — money that could be spent on student programs instead of going to “a landlord.” Goldson added that he has spoken to the Riverside’s principal, who said that moving Riverside to another New Haven Public Schools–owned building would be acceptable.

Matt Wilcox — a nominee to the Board of Education who will face a confirmation vote by the full Board of Alders next Monday — also spoke at Monday’s meeting.

“I do have a growing appreciation of the budget challenges facing the district and I know that there are different paths to the same goals,” said Wilcox. “I’m also hoping that there will be a plan to track the students affected by these potential changes — this will allow us to see how well the plan works, and I for one do not intend to let these student slip through the cracks unnoticed.”

Since December, the Board of Education has reduced its deficit from $8.9 million to $5.3 million for the fiscal year.

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu