Carolyn Sacco

After a school year wracked with controversy over a staggering deficit, the New Haven Board of Education continued to face a plethora of issues throughout the summer recess, including a shuffling of board members and contention over the policies of Superintendent of Schools Carol Birks.

Last year, the board underwent various changes to its roster following the dismissal of ex-Board Vice President Jamell Cotto and the resignation of Frank Redente. Their replacements, Matthew Wilcox and Yesenia Rivera, took office at the close of last year after a multimonth search. Confirmed on April 15 of this year, Wilcox boasts a strong background in academic and library settings, and all three of his children attend New Haven public schools. Rivera also has a personal stake in the Elm City’s education system, as her children attended the city’s schools as well. She currently works as program director for Edgewood PTO Child Care and attended Albertus Magnus College.

However, the board will only have a full roster for a short time. According to the New Haven Register, board member Joseph Rodriguez will resign from his position this coming September. In a June 17 email to Birks and the rest of the board, Rodriguez explained that his position as board member interfered too much with his formal job and family responsibilities. Rodriguez currently works for U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. as a deputy state director.

While members based Cotto’s dismissal on poor communication, several other members of the board have faced accusations of the same shortcoming. Wilcox addressed this issue upon his swearing in addition to his desire to reduce New Haven Public Schools’ staggering multimillion dollar deficit. According to the New Haven Register, the system posted a $5.7 million deficit at the end of the last fiscal year. 

“I want to help the board increase transparency with the district. It’s a good way to build trust,” Wilcox told the News in April 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.”

At a Finance and Operations Committee meeting this spring, Birks and her team stressed that any additional budget cuts would largely impact staff, something her office was reluctant to consider. But following a spike in the deficit due to loss of special education funds from the state, Birks’ office proposed the elimination of 53 teacher positions as of May 29 to cut the deficit further.

According to the New Haven Independent, the elimination of these positions would not have necessarily indicated layoffs, but rather a mass re-assigning of teachers to different positions. Despite Birks’ reassurance that teachers would not be traditionally fired, several teachers expressed frustration with Birks’ decision, while Cameo Thorne — the school district’s restorative practices program director — expressed concern about the transfers’ potential effects on students.

“Kids like structure and they like stability. Any time when they come to school and their life has been chaotic, the only constant is their teacher. When too many of those teachers are moved out of the building, they suffer a kind of mini-trauma,” Thorne said, according to the Independent.

After a June 4 protest by community members, the Board of Education voted to reject Birks’ decision, thereby allowing the 53 teachers to remain in their current positions. And while the proposed reassignments would have cut about $3.7 million from the deficit according to the New Haven Register, the board voted instead to come up with a plan to cut the deficit elsewhere.

“The kids themselves are crying to us for relief, and we cannot let one person under any circumstances have the kind of authority to do something that would put kids at risk,” said board member Edward Joyner following the board’s tabling of the 53 assignments according to the New Haven Register

The board’s decision came amid a tide of controversy over Birks’ policies. According to a July 22 article by the New Haven Independent, New Haven Public School Chief Operating Officer Michael Pinto alleged that Birks has created a hostile work environment at the school system’s headquarters, citing a number of incidents when Birks allegedly insulted him. Office of Youth, Family, and Community Engagement Chief Gemma Joseph-Lumpkin also filed a lawsuit against Birks. According to the New Haven Independent, the basis of the lawsuit claims that Birks stripped Joseph-Lumpkin of several responsibilities after she went on maternity leave.

The Board of Education meets on the second and fourth Monday of every month.

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu