New Haven parents got 19 hours to have a say in who runs the school system for the next three years.
It was the school board’s latest effort in “parent engagement.” Like previous attempts, it didn’t go over well.
The effort took place Thursday evening at the monthly meeting of the Citywide Parent Leadership Team at Wilbur Cross High School.
School board President Carlos Torre showed up to invite parents to fill out surveys evaluating how Garth Harries has done since he took over as schools superintendent on July 22. (Members of the public can fill out surveys here.)
The surveys are due on Friday at noon, Torre announced—drawing heat from parents about another lackluster effort to incorporate public input in a superintendent’s hiring process.
That was the latest development in a last-minute scramble concerning Harries’ reappointment. After just five months on the job, Harries faces a swift evaluation of his performance. That’s because the city charter limits new superintendents’ contracts to one year. And when Harries got the job last summer, he convinced the board to include in his contract a March 1 deadline by which the school board must decide whether to keep him on.
Harries got a scare last week when Mayor Toni Harp, citing concerns with the schools budget, threatened not to support renewing his contract by March 1 because he hadn’t had enough time to prove himself yet. She reversed her position hours later.
Torre (pictured) announced Thursday that the school board plans to gather surveys from the public, then present a formal evaluation at Monday’s school board meeting. He told parents to distribute the surveys to fellow parents—and to get them in by noon the following day.
Parents balked at the quick turnaround.
“You say you want feedback,” said Wilbur Cross mom Kathy Hagerty. Why didn’t the school board distribute the surveys “weeks ago” “as opposed to this last-minute” effort?
“It seems like a half-well-meaning gesture,” she said.
“At what point did you know that parents would need to fill out a form?” asked parent Megan Ifill of the advocacy group Teach Our Children. “It doesn’t feel as if parents’ time is valued,” she said, “because it seemed like we needed to be ready on-demand” to fill out the surveys at a moment’s notice.
Ifill, who found out about the surveys on Thursday, said the board could at least have given parents a heads-up at report card night so they would be ready.
Her critique echoed similar feedback last year, when the school board failed to get many people to show up to public hearings about the superintendent search.
Torre replied that the school board could not create the survey until it received Harries’ self-evaluation, which was due on Jan. 31. The board created its own survey form based on Harries’ self-evaluation, he said.
“Remember,” he told the five dozen parents, school staff and teachers gathered Thursday night, “this is the first time we’re evaluating a brand new superintendent in 21 years.”
He said if members of the public need some extra time, they can send in the surveys Friday or even Saturday afternoon. “Your voice will be heard,” he pledged.
Schools spokeswoman Abbe Smith said the district posted the survey on its website Monday and sent home an automated phonecall to parents Monday evening, in English and Spanish, informing them of the survey. The district emailed principals Tuesday and asked them to share the survey with parents, she added. She said Thursday’s invitation was a supplement to that outreach.
The one-page survey the board produced lists 15 priorities—such as “transparency,” “budget management” and “parent engagement”—that the school board set for its superintendent as part of the superintendent’s search last year. It asks members of the public to give written responses evaluating Harries in these 15 areas, and to offer any other feedback as desired.
In his own self-evaluation, Harries (pictured) rated himself “effective,” “strong” or “exemplary” in those areas. He said it’s too soon to judge the impact of his leadership on student achievement, but he noted some early positive signs, including a decrease in the number of high-schoolers receiving a D or an F in a class.
Click here to read his self-evaluation, which is dated December 2013.
Ifill, the mother of two high school students, said she feels “so many good things happening in the school system” under Harries’ watch. The school board’s handling of parent feedback in his evaluation is unfortunate, she said, because it detracts from those positive developments, such as communicating well with parents and empowering students.
“It seems like our time isn’t valued,” she said, “or it seems like they don’t really want our opinion, because they gave us only 24 hours” to fill out the surveys. “For something this important,” a survey could be “a way to create new goodwill with new families. I think it’s a missed opportunity to show parents that they are valued.”
In a subsequent interview, Torre was asked why the public surveys could not have been created before this week. He said a subcommittee of the school board had to meet with Harries to agree on the terms of the evaluation first, including whether he would be graded on a numerical scale. He said he has worked with the administrators and teachers union presidents to distribute the surveys to their members. And school staff emailed the surveys Tuesday to parent leaders.
He said the board plans to compile the surveys into an evaluation, which it will present at Monday’s school board meeting.
“Presuming that it’s positive,” he said, “we’ll say these are our conclusions,” and offer to sign a new, three-year contract with Harries. The board would then negotiate with Harries over the terms of the contract, he said.