Isabel Bysiewicz

With public schools across New Haven opening their doors on Thursday, district Superintendent Carol Birks is setting high expectations for the future education of Elm City students.

On Tuesday, Birks announced her goals for the upcoming school year at Hillhouse High School’s Convocation 2019 at their Floyd Little Athletic Center. Birks told the assembled crowd of parents, teachers, students and administrators that she plans to elevate third graders’ reading proficiency, ensure that 10th graders remain on track to graduate and work to keep attendance rates up, while also reaffirming that her office puts “kids first.” More generally, district administrators are hoping that more students will meet their learning goals throughout the school year.

“Our children are looking to us to be role models, to be examples, to do what’s best for them, to be on our best behavior, to stand up and be counted, to be accountable, to ensure that they are successful,” Birks said Tuesday, according to the New Haven Independent. “They only get one shot at this, and they are looking to us.”

Birks’ optimistic speech comes in the wake of a series of controversies throughout her year-and-a-half long tenure. According to a July 9 article by the New Haven Independent, the Board had planned to negotiate the terms of Birks’ removal this summer. But testimonies from community members overwhelmingly in her favor at a July 8 meeting may have turned the tables — allowing Birks to remain in office until her three-year contract expires.

Still, some members of the community are not enthused with Birks’ performance.

“With her, it’s just like thing after thing after thing,” Sarah Miller, NHPS parent and frequent attendee at Board meetings, told the News on Tuesday. “She’s just really challenging to work with and really has not inspired confidence.”

Major rifts between Birks and parents were exacerbated this summer after Birks decided to eliminate 53 teacher positions in an effort to mitigate the school district’s staggering deficit. During Birks’ tenure, NHPS has faced a multi-million-dollar deficit. While the combined efforts of the Board and the Superintendent’s office were able to slash a $8.9 million deficit to $5.3 million, the now-tabled decision to eliminate 53 teacher positions would have cut the deficit by an additional $3.7 million.

While not considered “layoffs,” teachers in those affected positions would be reassigned elsewhere — for example, a teacher may lose their position at one NHPS institution and fill a vacant post at another school. But after over 100 demonstrators demanded a reversal of the decision at a protest on June 3 at the Finance and Operations Committee meeting, board members issued a formal reversal on June 19.

Birks did not respond to requests for comment over the past two days.

“We should have a Superintendent and leadership that deals with the deficit in an appropriate way and doesn’t make these ridiculous decisions that causes the community to fight back,” Miller said. “It just is unnecessary.”

Smaller issues have also made their way into the public eye in the past few months. According to the New Haven Independent, Chief Operating Officer of NHPS Michael Pinto accused Birks of creating a hostile work environment at the NHPS headquarters, citing in a 23-page complaint that Birks has shouted at him and ridiculed him on several occasions. According to the complaint that was acquired by the Independent, Pinto reported that he had “never been treated so poorly in [his] entire professional career.” Pinto entered the COO position in March of this year.

Pinto is not the only employee under Birks to complain. According to the New Haven Independent, Youth, Family and Community Engagement Chief Gemma Joseph-Lumpkin also filed a lawsuit against Birks, claiming that Birks reduced her work responsibilities in response to Joseph-Lumpkin’s maternity leave after adopting a newborn baby.

Birks defended herself in response to the criticisms, saying she treats her employees respectfully and pushes them to fulfill a “kids first” mindset in a New Haven Independent article.

The Board of Education confirmed Birks as superintendent in December 2017.

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu .