New Haven’s Board of Education needs to fill nearly 100 job vacancies without paying a premium for hard-to-find bilingual teachers. Where to look for help? A bankrupt Caribbean island, for starters.
The board, in need of 95 hires to fill essential vacancies, recently sent three administrators on a recruiting trip to Puerto Rico, searching for bilingual teachers who want to flee the island’s sinking economy for a job in Connecticut.
The overseas expedition is one of several creative strategies the district is using to make sure the books are zeroed out when they close at the end of the month. The board was presented with a last-minute $6 million budget gap, in part because of unexpected state cuts, and it has challenges for the year ahead as well.
Among other ideas, district officials are reshuffling educators out of extraneous roles back into core teaching responsibilities, ending nonessential projects until later in the summer and hoping for low utility bills from a mild spring.
“Right now, we are at [$2.5 million short] and working, working every day,” Superintendent Reggie Mayo said, in his report to the board. “In the meantime, there will be some cuts. You’re going to hear hear some rumblings.
“All of the vacancies you see, we’re hoping that people that are cut will be able to fill those. We’re working from both ends.”
The district needs all that extra dough as it’s facing a shortfall in this fiscal year and a projected deficit in the next. Last November, about halfway through the school year, officials warned that the district was already $4.6 million behind, out of its total $182 million budget. That deficit was compounded by a mid-year cut from the state, which didn’t follow through on $1.3 million it had earlier allocated for New Haven’s magnet schools. That hurt, Mayo said.
For the upcoming fiscal year, the district could also come up short. The Board of Education had requested alders allocate an additional $8 million increase to cover rising personnel and special education costs. But the alders’ finance committee knocked the total down by a million bucks, and last week, the full board decided to strip another $2 million and sequester $1 million more that will be released based on how the state’s wraps up its unfinished budget next month.
To make up the lost revenue, the district has several fixes in mind, including filling critical shortages in next year’s staffing by hiring educators from Puerto Rico.
Competing With Other Poachers
The district has pulled educators from Puerto Rico for at least a decade. But the search took on particular urgency this year, as the number of Spanish-speaking students in New Haven continues to rise, while the American territory’s financial outlook tanked under $70 billion in debt.
It’s hard to find Spanish-speaking bilingual teachers. So those teachers often command higher salaries than other teachers do. Unless they’re fleeing a broken school system elsewhere, that is. Then the city might be able to hire teachers who’ll fill needed slots without busting the budget.
Puerto Rican-based educators seeking an exit from a system that’s closing 184 schools and has a pension fund that’s been described as “a legalized Ponzi scheme” are a prime target for New Haven’s recruiters. (Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas’s Clark County, Oklahoma City and Buffalo, N.Y., have all tried similar outreach.)
When district officials went down for a visit last month, about 200 applied, even with a $50 fee. Of those, a pool of 43 met New Haven’s requirements, according to Lisa Mack, the district’s human resources director.
Board member Carlos Torre Monday night expressed worry the district hadn’t “moved as fast as we should have” on these applicants, saying that neighboring school systems are poaching New Haven’s top finds.
Mack responded that her office is waiting on recommendations from principals, who in turn are confronting the obstacles of hiring overseas. For example, they usually want to see a sample lesson plan or a classroom demonstration, but that can be tough to arrange via Skype.
After the meeting, Mack said she isn’t worried that the district has fallen behind, noting that it hired 175 educators last school year. “We have pools of candidates to pick from,” she said. “It’s just a matter of balancing the budget. We can’t always hire a teacher that has 25 years of experience. It depends on what our budget allows, and we’ll make those decision from there.”
Other budget-solving strategies discussed Monday night include:
• Removing superfluous positions through attrition. With less money coming in, the district will have to go without positions it could afford during flush times. District Chief Operating Officer Will Clark is in the midst of meeting with schools to review their staffing levels. “We’re rightsizing some places to save some money,” he explained. “It’s not a cut or layoffs, but a realigning of the staff where it’s needed.”
• Saving big projects until next year. Clark is scrutinizing the purchase orders to see which contractors still have funds to spend. He plans to ask them to get through one last month without expending more. For example, if a builder wanted to repave a walkway, concrete might not be poured until later in the summer. “It’s weighing the urgency of things,” he explained. “We’ll stop spending unless it’s absolutely necessary for educational purposes. As we grab a nickel here and a dime here, that eventually adds up to a dollar.” Compounding the savings, Clark can also ask for a reduction in that company’s contract for the following year, seeing that they were able to get by on less, he added.
• Praying for mild weather. Scorchers like Monday can be costly, as keeping a reasonable temp inside all the school district’s massive buildings sends the energy bill surging. Luckily, May brought mild weather, allowing maintenance to forgo heat and air conditioning. “If we get lucky and the electric bills come back the way we’re hoping they will, maybe [the $2.5 million shortfall] will come down,” Mayo said. But June, so far, isn’t looking good. “I’m sad to see this heat today,” Mayo lamented after the meeting.
Of course, even if the district can shore up these minor financial and personnel gaps, school officials are still wary of what else might happen in Hartford next month.
“It’s safe to say there’s more work to be done, particularly in July, as the state makes its moves” in seeking to pass a budget in a special session, Clark said. “Essentially, as the state is solving its problems, that works its way downhill to us.” He reported that the district is working closely with New Haven’s state legislative delegation and with the alders’ Education Committee to prevent any further surprises.