Amid threats from the U.S. Department of Education to pull funding from its charter school system, the New Haven Board of Education has dug in its heels.

On a Monday night special session, the Board continued to prepare for what could be a legal fight against possible federal funding cuts. The federal DOE and Office for Civil Rights asked New Haven Public Schools to leave the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference in early September due to the league’s policy of allowing transgender athletes to participate in sports based on the gender they identify with.

At their Sept. 9 meeting, the BOE announced that it would not comply with federal orders and that it would consider legal recourse. Several board members expressed anger that NHPS had been singled out for the purpose of the DOE’s broader agenda. The Board’s non-compliance could cost New Haven Public Schools millions of dollars from the funding it receives in yearly federal grants as a part of efforts to desegregate the city’s schools.

“We do believe that this is only the beginning of their actions to withhold education funding, quite frankly, because of their disdain for the LGBTQ community,” said New Haven magnet school coordinator Michele Bonanno.

In a May letter to the various school districts and sports conferences in Connecticut, the OCR announced that the policy of allowing trans athletes to join sports teams based on their gender identity had “resulted in the loss of athletic benefits and opportunities for female student athletes.” The letter stated that transgender athletes must play on the team of the sex they were assigned at birth.

There are currently no known transgender student-athletes among the approximately 1,300 NHPS students that participate in the CIAC. However, Bonanno said that not acting against the newest order could threaten the ability of all NHPS students to participate in school sports and threaten the right of transgender students to play with the gender they identify with.

A second letter from the OCR in late August, Bonanno said, implied that the findings from the May letter had become federal policy and would be enforceable.

After receiving notice in early September that they were being asked to alter their policies surrounding transgender athletes and to withdraw from the CIAC, Board members met for an emergency meeting and voted to pursue legal action should magnet school funding be cut.

Some members who attended the Sept. 9 meeting said that the threat to funding was politically motivated.

“It is so hurtful to see this administration try to make us discriminate against anyone,” BOE member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur said. “We are not going to be extorted.”

Board member Edward Joyner said the OCR’s funding threat was unfair to the district, because the magnet school grant is used for many school programs beyond athletics.

“I think it should be stated that the magnet school grant covers far more than athletics,” Joyner said. “But the Office of Civil Rights is using this athletic example to take money from us that really is devoted for academic learning and the resources that we need to educate our kids.”

While the board met with legal counsel on Monday to discuss potential negotiations, a decision has yet to be made on whether or not New Haven magnet schools will still receive assistance from the grant program. The DOE will make their decision by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

“That certainly seems like the position that they’d like to take,” said Bonanno of the proposed cuts.

Dave Weinreb, cofounder of the New Haven LGBTQ+ Youth Task Force and New Haven magnet school teacher, told the News he was “very proud” of the district for making the decisions they have.

“I feel shame around [the] national leadership of the Department of Education,” Weinreb said.  “Because I believe that all high school students should be able to participate in sports, regardless of their gender identity.”

Maria Trumpler, who directs the Office of LGBTQ+ resources at Yale, told the News that past examples of anti-LGBTQ policy being struck down gave her hope for the current situation.

“Certainly that’s something that the Yale community would get involved with,” Trumpler said.

She noted that in the 1990s, several law schools refused to let military recruiters come because of discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies. “And then the federal government threatened to withhold funding. Harvard stood up to that, and they didn’t dare take funding away from them.”

“This has been done before,” Trumpler said. “It just strikes me that lawsuits are going to be effective, because the way federal law is going is to support states’ rights, and Connecticut is a very accepting state.”

The New Haven Board of Education meets on the second and fourth Monday of every month.

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu