In the wake of the New Haven Board of Education’s Oct. 2 decision to terminate the contract of Superintendent Carol Birks, city residents are weighing in on Birks’s tenure and the upcoming search for a new superintendent.
Last week, the board voted to consolidate negotiating powers in the President of the Board of Education — currently, Darnell Goldson. Assistant Superintendent Ilene Tracey will tend to administrative duties within the school district while the two parties finalize terms for terminating Birks’s contract. An exit agreement between Birks and the Board of Education was expected to have been signed by the end of last week. Yet, Birks and the Board of Education have remained silent on the matter.
“At the end of the day, Dr. Birks and the Board decided that it was in the best interest of students, teachers, families and the district for us to separate,” Goldson told reporters after the session on Wednesday. “It is all of our failure, including me. So yes, I’m disappointed.”
Birks did not attend the meeting and did not respond to a request for comment.
Goldson said in an email to the News that the Board of Education will not begin the search for a new superintendent for “a few months,” given the upcoming mayoral election. He added that the Board will not decide on the next superintendent’s desired qualities until they establish a search committee and get “stakeholder input.”
Justin Elicker SOM ’10 FES ’10, the Democratic candidate for New Haven mayor, said that the next New Haven Public School superintendent should be experienced in leading a school district.
“I’m optimistic that given the last hiring experience, there are some lessons learned as to how to incorporate community, parent and family input into the process of [hiring the next] Superintendent,” Elicker said in an interview with the News. “I’m optimistic that the Board will find an opportunity to hire a Superintendent that people are excited about at the get-go.”
The Board of Education is comprised of seven members — one of whom is the New Haven mayor, four of whom are appointed by the mayor and two of whom are elected. Elicker has emphasized the need for professionals and field experts on the Board of Education.
“Currently, only one member of the Board has any formal training and there are no individuals with a financial background,” Elicker’s online platform reads. “This will change when I am elected Mayor.”
Sarah Miller ’03, a volunteer with the New Haven Public Schools Advocates and a mother of two students at Christopher Columbus Academy, criticized the process by which Birks was selected and elected to the role of Superintendent. She said that parents were notified of public forums, used to obtain community input, the day of the forum and that the Board of Education had “no clear criteria” for the superintendent.
Goldson said that there were plenty of opportunities for community input and that he “personally fought for extended opportunities for community forums.” He also defended the process by which Birks was selected and his decision to vote for Birks in a June interview with the New Haven Register.
“We made a decision we thought at the time was the right decision,” Goldson told the New Haven Register.
Miller said that she is looking for confidence and stability in the next superintendent. She added that she wants the Board of Education to listen to the public throughout the selection process.
Birks’s departure will come in the wake of months-long criticism, with dissenters found within her staff, the Board of Education and the public.
In June, Birks proposed to eliminate 53 jobs in the New Haven School District, leading to protests both by students, faculty and community members. A June petition garnering over 1,300 signatures demanded that Birks be replaced.
The Board of Education rejected Birks’s proposal and voted unanimously to table the proposal. The motion asked the Superintendent to “work out a comprehensive budget mitigation plan that takes into account the needs and benefits of the students and the teachers in the schools,” according to the June 10 meeting minutes.
Miller said that a significant number of parents have been frustrated by Birks’s decisions, particularly issues driven by from budgetary constraints.
“There were decisions that didn’t seem to be made in the best interest of the kids,” Miller said. “There was the sense that the decisions around cutting the deficit were starting in the classroom rather than starting at the top.”
Elicker identified the budget as one of the Board of Education’s main challenges.
Birks’s tenure featured another controversy — New Haven Public School Chief Operating Officer Michael Pinto filed a report in July accusing Birks for creating a “hostile work environment.” According to the report, Birks threatened and screamed at Pinto over the phone on July 3. Pinto’s four-page formal complaint was supplemented by 19 pages of emails and notes.
The Board of Education convened for a special session on Sept. 17 and Sept. 24 to evaluate Birks’s performance, with this evaluation taking place during the public meeting and in private among Board members.
Goldson told reporters after the meeting that Birks would receive a sum between $150,000 and $200,000 in her exit package, per her contract. Goldson emphasized in an email to the News that the sum will fall closer to $150,000.
Referencing Birks’s exit package, Goldson said he wants all Board of Education employees to feel they are treated fairly.
“We honor our contracts,” Goldson said. “It didn’t work out for her or for us, so we decided to separate. She got something, and we got something.”
Yet, Board of Education member Edward Joyner voted against the motion to negotiate an exit package with Birks. In an interview with the New Haven Independent after the Oct. 2 meeting, he said that Birks should have been fired instead.
“I thought we had cause,” he told the New Haven Independent. “It’s that simple.”
Joyner declined to comment for this article.
Miller described Joyner’s decision as correct and “principled,” but also underscored the practical reality and challenges faced by the board.
“There were so many flagrant issues that should have been cause for termination — no payout needed,” Miller said. “At the same time, the board has been very dysfunctional during [Birks’s] tenure, and I think that puts them in a pretty weak bargaining position.”
According to WTNH-8, Birks will remain involved with the Board of Education in an advisory role until Nov. 1. Tracey is expected to serve as Interim Superintendent while the Board of Education finds Birks’s successor.
New Haven Public Schools served 21,552 students in the 2018-19 school year.
Nick Tabio | firstname.lastname@example.org