Dangers to students were a hot topic at Monday’s New Haven Board of Education meeting, where board members addressed concerns like the recent lack of bus routes and an uptick in unsafe school meals.
While a shortage of safe school bus stops has plagued the board for nearly a month, a wave of controversy surrounding food services swept across the district last week. According to the New Haven Register, students at Beecher School were offered granola bars with a risk for nut contamination on Sept. 13, while according to the New Haven Independent, some students at Beaver Hills Elementary School were served expired string cheese the following Monday. These incidents and more took the spotlight at Monday’s meeting, with some board members acknowledging the need for more effective responses to crises.
“We take too long to do every single thing,” board member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur said at the meeting. “Two weeks later, we have no fail-safe put in place right now … There’s no process.”
New Haven Public Schools parent and president of education reform group Citywide Parent Team Nijija Ife-Waters spoke at the podium, demanding that the Board make changes to how the district distributes food to students.
While she admitted that she was worried for her son — who has a life-threatening allergy — Ife-Waters emphasized that she stood for all students in the district.
“We cannot play with these children’s lives,” Ife-Waters said. “You don’t have to ever like me, but understand… I don’t just represent [my son], I represent the whole. And I’m trying to save their lives.”
In response, members of NHPS Superintendent Carol Birks’s office spoke at the podium, outlining the district’s proposed steps to prevent further incidents: increasing communication between district officials, listing the ingredients of cafeteria food and developing a “standard lunch procedure.”
Parent concerns over allergies were compounded by a sustained rage over a lack of safe bus stops — in an effort to mitigate the district’s multimillion dollar deficit, NHPS slashed its usual 8,800 bus stops to just over 4,000, which forced some children to walk several miles to school, often across busy streets and areas of recent violent crime. Throughout September, parents have brought their pleas to the Board for action, and while NHPS Chief Operating Officer Michael Pinto said Monday that about 1,500 complaints have been processed — with 200 remaining — the inconveniences caused by lack of transportation continue to haunt parents.
One such parent is Maria Harris, who told the board in tears Monday that her 8- and 9-year-old children must walk several blocks and across bustling streets to reach their bus stop. Additionally, she mentioned that when one of her children had detention, school officials simply dismissed her child once detention ended, locking the school doors and leaving the student with no supervision until Harris — who was then stuck in traffic — could pick her up.
The bus route crisis has brought several other transportation-related issues to light, particularly regarding transit time. According to several parents at Monday’s meeting and at meetings throughout the past month, their children must wake up — sometimes before 5 a.m. — to catch a bus that will drive for multiple hours before dropping those students off at school. The same issue repeats later in the day, with some students arriving home hours after dismissal.
Pinto presented an update on the transportation fiasco on Monday, noting that while the district began the year with about 4,500 bus stops, that number stands now at around 5,100. He added that approximately 130 students with special education plans have been reinstated in the routing system — while earlier technological difficulties had erased scores of students from the bus lists, several of those students now apparently have full access to transportation.
According to Pinto, the district is on track to finish processing transportation requests by its proposed deadline of Oct. 1.
Despite Pinto’s report, board members remained skeptical of the entire bus system, with some members calling for the superintendent’s office to review every single student’s transportation in case some affected people are not submitting requests.
At the meeting, it became increasingly apparent that the district remains unsure of who to blame for the bus catastrophe. Originally intended as a cost-saving measure, the district’s slashing of bus routes has now been partially amended by the district’s own funds. However, as Board President Darnell Goldson said at Monday’s meeting, it remains unclear how the bus incident has affected the district’s finances — a budget for the school year has not yet been presented to the Board.
According to Birks, that budget will be presented to board members at the next Finance and Operations Committee meeting on Oct. 7.
Speaking beyond just the financial minutiae, the usually quiet Mayor Toni Harp suggested that the district simply go back to last year’s bus system, because as the days get shorter, some students may be arriving home in the dark.
“We’ve got to find a way to straighten this out, because in many respects, children’s lives are in danger, especially as we see time changing, it’s already getting dark,” Harp said.
The New Haven Public Schools headquarters is located at 54 Meadow St., while full Board meetings take place at the Celentano School at 400 Canner St.