Carolyn Sacco

As both the school year and the fiscal year draw to a close, the New Haven Board of Education met on Monday to introduce its newest member, Matt Wilcox. But positive feedback on Wilcox’s nomination was overshadowed by heavy criticism from community members, who lamented the board’s lack of transparency.

Wilcox’s swearing-in follows last week’s Board of Alders meeting, in which the alders voted unanimously to approve Wilcox’s nomination. In an interview with the News after last week’s meeting, Wilcox said that he prioritizes transparency within the district, a sore point among education reform groups like New Haven Public School Advocates, or NHPS Advocates. Back in December and January, NHPS Advocates members listed transparency as one of the shortcomings of Wilcox’s predecessor, Board of Education Vice President Jamell Cotto, whose reappointment was voted down by the Board of Alders back in January.

“I want to help the board increase transparency with the district. It’s a good way to build trust,” Wilcox told the News last week after his official confirmation. “We have a lot of budget issues to work through, a lot of people have been working on them for a while now, and it’s going to take a lot more work.”

While Wilcox has received positive evaluations by NHPS Advocates and New Haven alders, other board members’ reputations are not quite as glowing. At Monday’s meeting, the board came under fire for its continued lack of transparency and respect for parents.

The criticisms crested with a shouting match between community parent Nijija Ife Waters Towe and Board of Education President Darnell Goldson regarding an alleged personal slight by Goldson at a movie theater April 13. According to Waters Towe, she saw Goldson at the theater and attempted to speak with him, but Goldson ignored her and said, “I don’t speak to liars.” At Monday’s meeting, Goldson claimed that the accusation was “ridiculous,” saying that he was with his family at the time and wished to be left alone. Goldson then threatened to have Waters Towe removed from the room if she refused to leave the stand.

Towe also criticized the rest of the board, noting how, when community members take the stand at board meetings, board members tend to ignore comments or roll their eyes at the speakers.

Other subjects of general criticism included high teacher turnover rates due to personnel cuts in some New Haven classrooms. Engineering and Science University Magnet School teacher Kirsten Hopes-McFadden criticized those rates, noting that her children have had three teachers for the same class in under a year. Still, as per previous board meetings, major personnel cuts do not seem to be on the board’s agenda even as it faces a $5.3 million deficit.

At an April 1 Finance and Operations Committee meeting, Birks and her team reported that any remaining cuts to that deficit would largely impact staff. But committee members expressed their distaste with that particular option. If the district cannot completely quash the shortfall, the city of New Haven must absorb the 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,” said board member Joseph Rodriguez at the meeting. “I can’t in good faith as a father do that, knowing the disruption that would occur in schools.”

Tackling the deficit is also an item on Wilcox’s list for board improvement, Wilcox told the News after he was confirmed last Monday. While the district was able to slash an $8.9 million deficit to $5.3 million, Monday’s full board meeting ended with dismal news: loss of special education funds from the state has increased the current shortfall to $5.7 million.

Beyond finances, however, Birks’ team also presented more information on the relocation of Riverside Academy, an alternative education school previously located on Ella T Grasso Boulevard. While confusion bubbled up at the last Board of Education meeting over the potential closing of Riverside, board members assured the public that while Riverside’s address will change in order to save money, the school’s programs will remain intact.

According to Assistant Superintendent for instrumental leadership Paul Whyte, Riverside will now be located at 375 Quinnipiac Ave., about four miles from its current location. And according to Whyte’s presentation to meeting attendees, all school materials will be moved to the new location by July 30, allowing Riverside to reopen for the 2019–2020 school year in September.

Members of Whyte’s relocation design team, including Wilcox’s wife Joanne, also testified to the positive impact Riverside has had on its community.

“I want to make sure that we’re really emphasizing the fact that these kids need healing,” Joanne Wilcox said Monday. “We have a lot of kids who have multiple layers of trauma. … I think that this is our opportunity to really meet those needs.”

The Board of Education meets on the second and the fourth Monday of every month at 400 Canner St.

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu