As Mayor Toni Harp’s tenure draws to a close, Justin Elicker SOM ’10 FES ’10 is gearing up to lead City Hall and make changes to, among other things, the Elm City’s educational system.
The Board of Education currently consists of two elected members — the mayor and four members nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the Board of Alders. Currently, Harp sits on the Board, but following her defeat in the Sept. 10 primary, Harp’s seat will be filled by Elicker come January. In an interview with the News, Elicker discussed some of his priorities and recommendations for the Board, focusing on the district’s current and very public financial and political woes.
“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 at a Sept. 3 Board of Education meeting. “The point of the matter is that the [school] district, the organization, has a structural deficiency.”
In the past, some of the district’s methods of mitigating deficit, such as reassigning teachers and rerouting buses, have caused public outcry. On June 4, community members protested outside of the NHPS headquarters at 54 Meadow Street, demanding that the district repeal a decision to reassign 53 teachers to other positions across New Haven. While NHPS touted the reassignments as alternatives to layoffs, several teachers and parents fought back saying that stability in the classroom is imperative to children’s learning.
Other teachers criticized the manner of the reassignments — according to the New Haven Register, several teachers were suddenly notified via email that their jobs would be cut.
While the reassignments would have reduced the district’s deficit by $3.7 million, the Board of Education voted to dismiss the reassignments following the protest. Elicker acknowledged both the financial challenges and the district’s responsibility to multiple parties.
“The way that many of [the teachers] found out was not the most respectful and productive way to do that,” Elicker told the News. “We need to do some challenging things to address our budget problems, but it can be done in a more sensitive way.”
The district then attempted a second strategy to cut costs: slashing school bus stops from 8,800 to just over 4,000. While the district originally intended to promote efficiency within the bus system, parents soon revolted. Many said with so many fewer stops, several young students now had to walk several miles to their bus stops, often crossing busy streets and areas of recent violence.
However, the district can’t roll back the decision as it did with teacher reassignment — thousands of students currently ride buses every day. Implemented just days before the start of the 2019-2020 school year, the new bus system will take time to fix, and according to NHPS Chief Operating Officer Michael Pinto, the district hopes to process thousands of complaints it has received by Oct. 1.
Elicker acknowledged the bus route crisis and said the issue could have been better handled had NHPS notified parents of the changes earlier. With earlier notification parents could “troubleshoot and correct problems” before putting their children on unsafe or impractical routes.
According to Elicker, communication between the Board, NHPS and the community is imperative to a functioning school system. While Elicker’s campaign website lists his current criticisms of the Board — it mentions “petty squabbling” as something to avoid going forward — Elicker told the News that trust and an open flow of information will be key to improving education in New Haven.
“If we have more public trust by sharing more information, it makes the politics work better because more people understand the full picture and don’t always feel like someone’s trying to trick them,” Elicker told the News.
More specifically, Elicker noted how more financial transparency between school administrators would benefit NHPS. He also said he’d seek balance of powers between the Board of Education and the Superintendent’s office. While the Board should not “micromanage” Superintendent Carol Birks and her team, the Board should still ensure that NHPS is held accountable, Elicker said.
The Superintendent’s office will present the budget for the current school year at the next Finance and Operations Committee meeting on Oct. 7.
Valerie Pavilonis | firstname.lastname@example.org