On Tuesday, the New Haven Board of Education Finance and Operations Committee met at 54 Meadow St. to discuss the finances of the district in a packed boardroom, prior to adjourning for a special Board of Education meeting.
New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Carol Birks took the podium at the meeting, which was called primarily to address ongoing parental concerns about the mass rerouting of buses within the district. While busing took center stage at the meeting, board members also discussed several other chronic issues confronting the district, such as deficit mitigation and, notably, the performance of Birks and her administration.
“If you went to the airport and you were supposed to get on a flight, and you looked out there, and you saw the plane had a wing missing, you’d be a fool to get on that flight,” board member Edward Joyner said. “But the point of the matter is that the [school] district, the organization, has a structural deficiency.”
Transportation issues took up a large part of the meeting, with the superintendent’s office receiving a barrage of criticism for its mass overhaul of bus routes last week. According to Director of Transportation Fred Till, the district cut the amount of New Haven bus stops from around 11,000 to 4,546 in an effort to reduce the “astronomical” number of vehicles in a cost-saving measure. While conversations about consolidating bus stops began at the end of last school year, the district has still received about 900 requests for new bus stops since the school year began last Thursday, accounting for about 2 percent of all students enrolled in the New Haven Public Schools system.
Board members expressed their concern over the lack of bus stops, listing possible scenarios that could occur as a result of more students walking to school while their parents and the district scramble to find alternate means of transportation. According to board member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur, many students must travel through multiple neighborhoods on their way to school, often facing extremely busy streets, reckless driving and areas stricken with recent gun violence.
“I am extremely nervous about something happening to someone’s child,” Jackson-McArthur said. “We have to fix this with haste.”
In response, Birks admitted that the district should have begun the bus rerouting process earlier, and apologized to assembled parents and other community members for any “pain or anguish” experienced due to the lack of transportation. She added that the district is currently working to honor route changes requested by parents — and according to Chief of Youth, Family and Community Engagement Gemma Joseph-Lumpkin, the district has expanded its call center from two to nine phones to field calls from parents.
Board members also discussed Birks’ responsibilities as superintendent, particularly in the realm of professional procurement: the acquisition of goods and services from external providers. While Birks is currently able to approve contracts under $20,000 without board agreement, board members debated the idea of lowering that limit to $5,000. While Birks argued that the current number prevents overwhelming agendas at Finance and Operations meetings, other Board members replied that Birks should not be permitted to make financial decisions of significant scope without checks and balances, particularly in a time of dire financial straits for the district.
“The reason that organizations have professional procurement policies is they want to win the public trust. And as long as the people in charge don’t violate it, we have no reason to be concerned,” Joyner said. “But quite frankly, there are documented efforts where this superintendent has abused the process.”
Birks denied Joyner’s accusation at the podium, but Joyner added that hiring external consultants at “exorbitant” prices without the approval of the board is also a breach of public trust.
Before the full board meeting began, the Finance and Operations Committee discussed the findings of the newly created Budget Mitigation Committee, which met six times over the summer to discuss ways to reduce the multimillion dollar deficit that the district currently faces. Though no one from the committee arrived to present their findings, board members still discussed the seven solutions from a printout, including a recommendation to examine several underutilized properties owned and rented by the district and reassess the costs of retaining those spaces. Other possible mitigation suggestions involved reopening furlough discussions and introducing a 10 percent reduction of the New Haven Public Schools’ administrative budget.
Board members emphasized the need for changes at the administrative level, particularly the district’s lack of a chief financial officer in the midst of the budget crisis. The departure of Victor De La Paz in 2016 has left the position empty up to the present, although according to Chief Operating Officer Michael Pinto, two candidates will be interviewed within the next week and could advance upon the superintendent’s consideration.
Birks first entered the superintendent position in December 2017.
Valerie Pavilonis | firstname.lastname@example.org