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Schools Go On Trial

by Melissa Bailey | Apr 10, 2014 12:24 pm

(31) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Schools, City Budget

“Do you want to change your testimony about these numbers?” asked the trial lawyer.

No, replied the witness.

The lawyer dived into an extensive cross-examination about the amount of money New Haven spends per student in its public schools.

The exchange took place not in a courtroom, but in the Aldermanic Chambers of City Hall. The cross-examiner was Mike Stratton, a trial lawyer who, when he’s not pursuing personal injury cases, has taken on a second job as a city legislator.

On Wednesday night at a Board of Alders Finance Committee on Mayor Toni Harp’s $511 million proposed new city budget, Stratton, a Prospect Hill/Newhallville alder, spent nearly an hour grilling two star witnesses who also have legal backgrounds, schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark and Superintendent Garth Harries.

The debate raised questions over whether New Haven is spending too much money on its students—and to what extent courtroom techniques and strategies translate to legislative hearings.

The exchanges became so heated at times Wednesday night that Finance Committee chair threatened to shut down the meeting.

“We can terminate this whole thing right here, unless you can come to an agreement to be civil,” Jackson-Brooks warned at one point.

Harries and Clark approached a table of 12 alders at 8:30 p.m. for their department’s turn at presenting its budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. They were the next in a series of department heads who came before the Finance Committee, which is charged with amending and voting on Harp’s proposed budget.

In their opening statement, Harries and Clark outlined how much money the city spends on school-related costs. Less than 20 percent of the city’s general fund (the money raised by local property taxes) goes towards education, they claimed.

Harries and Clark said the city pays $98.7 million on school-related costs if you include medical benefits, workers compensation, pensions and debt service and exclude the Education Cost Share grant, which is state money that passes through the city.

Click here to read a detailed Power-Point presentation.

Stratton has publicly questioned the legal basis for listing certain school-related costs—medical benefits, workers compensation, pensions and debt service—on the city side of the budget instead of separating them out in the schools budget.

He has argued that this obscures the amount of money the city pays for education, thus allowing the city to pay more than minimum required by state law on education. He has claimed that some of the spending is “illegal” and has threatened to sue.

In a letter from city budget chief Joe Clerkin earlier this week, Stratton found out an answer to the historical question of how long the city has been paying for school-related medical benefits, workers compensation, pensions and debt service.

In the 1980s Biagio DiLieto administration (when City Hall was sometimes at odds with the Board of Ed) those costs were all counted on the schools side of the budget. In Fiscal Year 1990, Mayor John Daniels started counting those costs on the city side of the budget. That practice continued through the current year, according to Clerkin.

Harries said he spent the week digging into that history and found that the costs were moved to the city side “so that the city could control them.”

On Wednesday, Stratton asked about that history. Then he began a line of questioning that sought to establish a legal case that the city is not required to pay for certain school-related costs.

Stratton asked if, when the school board settles union contracts, “there is any indication that the city would be paying the benefits” for those workers.

Clark said yes: The city has a representative in the room and negotiates those benefits. He added that the cost to the city of the pensions is low, because paraprofessionals don’t have pensions and teachers’ and school administrators’ pensions are paid for by the state.

The city even handles payroll for school board staff, Clark added.

Stratton then tried a different angle: Calling the witness’s credibility into question by showing that the numbers the city was using were not accurate.

Stratton held up a chart that compared New Haven’s per-pupil spending with comparable cities. It showed New Haven in the middle of the pack, spending $14,600 per school.

Harries had previously said he could only “dream” of getting as much money as Hartford does.

Stratton employed classic courtroom rhetoric to grill Harries and Clark.

“Do you want to change your testimony about these numbers?” Stratton asked.

No, Harries replied.

Melissa Bailey Photo Stratton (pictured) accused New Haven public schools of sending the “wrong numbers” to the state. He was talking about the “net current expenditures” all school districts report to the state. (Click on the video at the top of the story to watch.)

His argument went as follows:

• There’s a curious dip in the numbers New Haven reported.

• In the 2010-11 fiscal year, New Haven reported spending $353 million on its students; in 2011-12, $316; and in 2012-13, $309 million.

• That last figure is the basis of the per-pupil calculation. Stratton said it can’t be trusted; he claimed the $309 million figure does not reflect the true spending on education.

Stratton’s remarks essentially accused Clark, who’s in charge of the schools budget, of a coverup.

“Don’t make hand gestures at me,” replied Clark at one point during a testy exchange.

Stratton and Clark, who is also a lawyer, continued to interrupt each other and argue over the numbers.

Harries (also an attorney) interjected at one point to ask where Stratton was heading with his line of questioning.

Three-quarters of the education budget is paid for by outside sources, not city money, Harries calculated. (Check out the chart for his math.)

“Would you propose that the city pay less than 26 percent of our budget?” he asked.

Board of Alders President Jorge Perez also attempted to guide the conversation towards the matter at hand. He said staff should definitely “go back to those numbers, and determine what the right number is.”

But “the real discussion is going to be” how much money the city spends on education in the upcoming year,” Perez said. “We’re really spending time not on the real policy.”

The debate continued with testy exchanges like this one:

“I’m sorry if I upset you,” Clark said.

“I’m not upset,” Stratton replied. “You’re getting a little red in the face.”

Jackson-Brooks (pictured) suggested Stratton and Clark set up a separate time to meet and come to agreement about basic facts in the budget.

Clark said he’d prefer to have the debate in public.

“You can sit here by yourself if you want,” Jackson-Brooks offered, but she said the current line of questioning was not productive.

“We’re just going back and forth,” she said.

Stratton agreed to compile all of his questions in one coherent document; The school board officials agreed to return to the committee and discuss the matter another night.

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Comments

posted by: IloveMYcity203 on April 10, 2014  1:33pm

Things just got really interesting!

If I recall correctly, another article had alders and city officials denying these allegations, now Garth mysteriously did some research and it turns out that Stratton is telling the truth about the allegations that he (Stratton) made!

During the last administrator, everyone blamed NHPD and NHFD for expensive pensions and it seems as if money was being manipulated all along, and the Mayor wants to raise taxes? WOW!

Man I love “NHI” Keep the information coming.

posted by: JohnTulin on April 10, 2014  1:35pm

Mike Stratton is the best thing to happen to New Haven in a while.  It is about time those in power felt threatened.

posted by: Laughingstock on April 10, 2014  1:58pm

This sounds like more of the mindless and uncivil attack behavior we have seen in the past from Mr Stratton. Hats off to Mr Clark for insisting on public exchanges.  Considering Mr Stratton’s curious take on reality, I don’t want to hear secondhand information from him.

I am delighted that the state is paying so much of New Haven’s education costs. As a retired person I admire thrift.  I also have taken enormous pride in the amazing rise of New Haven schools in the past years under our present team of administrators.

This looks like more of the kind of rightwing attack we see on a national scene designed to reset the agenda.  Isn’t anyone commending our schools for the extraordinary change for the positive? Every time we get national recognition for our achievements in contracts negotiation, healthy food, educational improvements, New Haven Promise, I feel my property value rise.  I live at a school bus stop for different schools and I quiz the kids waiting for their bus. I am always so happy to hear what they say.

posted by: Wooster Squared on April 10, 2014  2:10pm

I’m glad Stratton is forcing a lot of this questionable spending out into open discussion.

It’s amazing how long we’ve been handing the Board of Ed a blank check. The fact that Harries and Clark were getting so flustered at the prospect of having to actually explain their budget tells you a lot about how the Board of Ed has been run.

I’m also glad to see that the Union super-majority hasn’t been able to silence Stratton despite their best efforts.

posted by: Noteworthy on April 10, 2014  2:22pm

Some Clarity Notes:

1. Bravo Mike Stratton. Finally, somebody on Finance realizes the power each alder possesses, and has the talent/desire to question the status quo. There has already been more discussion regarding the school budget than at any time in the last 10 years.

2. If the medical was moved over to the city side to control costs, then why did Will Clark negotiate the medical with the union during the last contract?

3. Moreover, the rationale for moving health costs to the city side of the ledger is the reason why the entire school budget should be moved over there by line item - the NHPS can’t control costs or use common sense when it comes education.

4. The schools budget has always been about status quo and patronage. As one mayoral candidate famously said: “It’s a patronage dump.” It still is and this entire budget is about protecting it. If it takes a sledge hammer to bust it open - keep swinging.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on April 10, 2014  2:29pm

I have spoken to countless people who are so excited to finally have people like Stratton on the BOA. Dragging the dead mice from under the rug! BRAVO Mr Stratton keep it up. Great job…and may I add that I am disappointed to see many of our leaders still trying to hide the dirt. It is so sad to see that these other alders would so willfully lie to the public or at the lease keep the truth from them.

posted by: formerNHIT on April 10, 2014  2:39pm

Taxes in New Haven are pretty much out of control.  The schools spend way too much on administrator salaries.

As a consequence of the high tax rate there is no way you can convince most city workers to move there, it would be cheaper for them to pay a tax for not working and living in New Haven for example. 

I bring this up because what Stratton is doing is simply trying to protect the tax payer which in turn will improve the city as a place to live.  The school district needs to get rid of some extra administrators.

posted by: HewNaven on April 10, 2014  2:45pm

Everyone stop and read this. It’s the clearest picture yet of our city budget and embarrassingly it’s from a YDN author:

http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2014/04/10/raising-taxes-rising-tempers/

If someone with an ivy league course-load can still find the time to dive into city finances at this depth, then the rest of us should have no excuses. There are no shortcuts to understanding this stuff, so stop with all the trite, uninformed statements about how easy this all is.

posted by: positive on April 10, 2014  3:01pm

Does anyone know where Mr. Stratton got his numbers from? He seems very confident, but then so does Mr. Clark.

Can the Independent do some fact checking or at least ask each person for sources so we can all do the fact checking?

[Editor’s note: In the case of the per-pupil spending, they were looking at the same numbers, as reported by the state. Stratton was looking at a different year than Clark was. I confirmed the figures for overall net expenditures with the state data.—Melissa]

posted by: anonymous on April 10, 2014  3:02pm

How is it a “right wing attack” to save money for city residents who have seen their tax/rent bills double in the past decade?

Sending less money to wealthy suburbs (which is where close to 80% of our teachers, police, and school administrators live*) seems like a progressive cause in comparison to the tax-the-poor plan that Harp has in mind.

If anything, saving money on administrators & pensions for suburbanites would allow the city to consider hiring back the laid-off paraprofessionals (who mostly live in the city,* and who are essential to having strong classrooms).

*http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/most_city_union_workers_live_out_of_town/)

posted by: FacChec on April 10, 2014  3:17pm

While Stratton raised good points regarding past spending by the BOE on education, he has allowed himself to move away from his original point of questioning with regard to the 2014/15 proposed revenue and spending budgets of the city and the BOE.

The city documents one overall expenditure this year (2013-14) to the Board - $177,219, but does not identify categorical line items.

The BOE on the other hand, delineates line item receipts from the city via the state of CT. and includes the city’s match; however, the BOE numbers are listed categorically and do not match the cities claimed outlay total of $177,219.

Stratton initially broached the subject of mismatched budget claims, but allowed himself to be side tracked into the area of BOE overall spending from 2010 - 2013.
Because the BOE receives so many special funds from so many other sources, not reported to the city doing the course of a year, it becomes extremely difficult to tie the board down to a degree of accuracy, one that the State board of education itself, does not attempt to do.

Stratton will find himself in time consuming deep $hit with this line of questioning, one which will have no impact on the proposed 2014-15 budget, the main subject of this inquiry.

posted by: IloveMYcity203 on April 10, 2014  3:24pm

@HewNaven,

Even I bashed the “City of New Haven” and the current administration. Most people hate the previous administration, so there is no need to discuss that lol, but that article was very informative, and definitely slightly changes my view on things, but I still think we should look into his allegations.

Changes can’t happen over night, and I would assume that most people who agree;however, NH residents just want to know that we are going to be on a smooth path going forward.

All in all, Mayor Harp does have a difficult task and it’s still too early to give her a “F” as a grade as well as the budget isn’t 1+1.

With that said, that article makes a very compelling argument, and thank you for sharing. Very informative from start to finish. It opened up my eyes some more :)

posted by: Brutus2011 on April 10, 2014  3:47pm

I think Alder Stratton is correct in pressing NHPS officials for answers.

His style is really not at issue. His substantive questions as an elected representative to appointed public officials are.

I think citizens who support this effort to shine the light of objective inquiry into BOE and NHPS finances should come out and support those of the BOA who see this as a vital public interest.

posted by: connecticutcontrarian on April 10, 2014  3:56pm

NHI now seems to average at least 1 story per week about Alder Stratton.  What happened to his “caucus”? Is he the only one qualified to speak on behalf of these supposedly independent alders or is this just an army of one using his legal background to set the stage for a mayoral bid in 2015?

posted by: PH on April 10, 2014  4:47pm

@HewNaven—great article you linked to

General comment: I am happy to have Stratton or anyone else probe the budget for ways to stave off tax increases, but I guess I would want to know what within the school budget he would suggest be slashed in order to stop said tax increases.  I understand that we may be spending more per pupil than the state minimum, but I am not convinced this is a bad thing.  I know the common refrain that there are too many overpaid administrators, which may be true, but what else specifically would appear to be problematic in the school budget?  Pension, medical costs, and debt servicing don’t exactly seem like realistic areas to expect savings in the immediate future.

posted by: yim-a on April 10, 2014  5:03pm

1. Stratton’s demeanor is a little over the top, but he’s a trial lawyer and so I guess it’s a well worn hat for him.  He’s not a diplomat (a la Elicker) but he does have passion and obviously does his homework.

2. What he is doing as an alderman is absolutely vital to the municipal, fiscal, and political viability and legitimacy of the city.  The great challenge for US cities seeking a post-industrial life is bringing the modern tools of democracy -  transparency, participation, and technology -  to the task of slimming down bureaucracy, budgets, and inefficient services.  This is what Alderman Stratton is doing, and it is a breath of very fresh air.

posted by: mstratton on April 10, 2014  5:30pm

Just to clarify a well wrote piece.

I am not seeking to cut teachers or paraprofessionals. We are seeking to understand how much money goes to education. We still do not know the full extent. And we are trying to figure out how the money is being spent and if there is waste that can be cut without in any way impacting services. Right now there are tens of millions of dollars used without explanation. Any money saved goes to the city budget where we have more control and plenty of needs. The testimony last night was stunningly inaccurate. Harries and Clark brought in charts never seen before.

One pie chart was used by them to make the argument that less than 20% of our city dollars goes to education. They divided the amount spent on education into the total amount that they said was the city budget. But they used the wrong numbers. They added their state grants to the city budget to make our budget look 45% bigger than it actually is.  But this was using charts to confuse. Once you remove monies that aren’t received and spent by the city we are left with 325 million. When you divide they by at least 120m in education spending we spend 38% that’s more than any city

Then they claimed that the per pupil spending was less than Hartford. Garth said he dreamed about getting to their level. They showed everyone the bar graphs. But they used the wrong nunbers. When the divided the number of pupils into the total spent they used a spending nunber that is 110m or more less than we actually spend. Once that is added in we are way over Hartford and number 7 in spending among all towns in ct. There is very odd stuff going on here. In the boe budget spending has risen steadily for boe from 370m in 2010 to over 400m this year. But in reporting to the state the boe went from 360 m in 2010 to 315m in 2011 to 309m in 2012-13. Harries used the 309m number that vastly misrepresents the actual money spent. This 309m number is reported by boe to the state. It is wrong. Very wrong.

posted by: DRAD on April 10, 2014  5:40pm

Yes, Alder Stratton could deliver his points in a more collegial manner. . .but anyone criticizing the substance of his inquiry is a sad apologist for policies that will do nothing more that perpetuate up our failed system for budgeting, taxing and spending in the management of the city.

posted by: mstratton on April 10, 2014  5:51pm

If the 309m can be explained somehow it still isn’t a useful number because it’s way off the actual amount spent. Hartford reported numbers consistent with their actual budget as did Bridgeport. Hartford 379m in 2010, 379 in 2011, and 388 in 2012. (Hartford has several thousand more students) Why would they report a number that was 100m less than reality? We don’t know other than to say it is very helpful to tell alders that we don’t pay as our peers when the truth is we see way over our peers. To satisfy harries “dream” of being as well funded as Hartford, we would have to cut 25m from his budget.

It’s disturbing they came in either with a design to manipulate the numbers or worse for people running education not even knowing the right numbers. Further the numbers are still much higher than the budget reveals. The following are not included in the budget and not quantified the city just disclosed to alders that we also pay finance and payroll for boe, we pay nurses, we pay crossing guards, we pay maintenance, we pay for roads and sidewalks , we pay for utilities on sone schools, and rents for school personnel, and the list continues. This will add at least another 15-20m onto the numbers making new haven the highest per pupil spender in the state and 3-5,000 per pupil higher than any town with more than 50,000 residents.

Now as for being theatrical, that is not the point. Getting heard through the distractions and obfuscations is very tough. Harries was extremely evasive and cross examination is the only way to pin someone down. It’s called the greatest invention of man for finding out the truth. My preference would have been a relaxed discussion but they were they were there to sell not to chat. The only other way would be an education expert who could testify but my motion was denied. So both men danced all over the place. At no time did this become a fight. It was a cross examiner pinning down folks caught selling snake oil to the public-

posted by: Threefifths on April 10, 2014  5:52pm

Hey Alder Stratton.Try this.

Nikita Khrushchev and the UN Shoe-Banging Incident


http://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/Nikita-Khrushchev-and-the-UN-Shoe-Banging-Incident

posted by: cupojoe on April 10, 2014  6:15pm

Win, lose, or draw this is EXACTLY what the citizens of this city and the BOE needed.

Go Stratton. The rest of the Alders should be ashamed of their silence.

posted by: FacChec on April 10, 2014  6:25pm

Power to the Mike, but after reading your two post I must admit they left me a bit dazed and confused. Just look at your fellow alder’s face in the above pictures, this is way over their head, even if they really give a $hit, which they do not.

What’s the point? the state sets a minimum spending requirement for all cities and towns, the state does not say a city cannot spend more, it only says to a city not to spend less. All the numbers you have called out are more than the state’s minimum for New Haven from 2010 to 2013.

Secondly, as an attorney you should know to not ask questions you do not already know the answer to, that’s basic and fundamental.
In this instance you are not sticking to that dictate, rather you jump and skip around until you find a gotcha moment.

That may satisfy your ego, but is does not deal with the problem at hand, The revenue and spending by the board, and the city’s inability or failure to record, report and verify the spending including their own.

Bottom line…...the other alders are not going to help you, in order to get the public on your side the public will have to understand what your talking about and what are the financial impacts.

Stick to the script Mike..

Now go Stratton!!

posted by: The Realist on April 10, 2014  6:31pm

Keep up the great work Mike!  We are all behind you!!

posted by: Pantagruel on April 10, 2014  10:13pm

The question about whether more or less money would help New Haven’s less than sterling public school performance brings to mind a story involving the recently deceased baseball hall of famer, Ralph Kiner.

Playing for the abysmal Pittsburgh Pirates, but after winning his 7th consecutive home run title, in 1952, Branch Rickey (of Jackie Robinson fame) proposed cutting Kiner’s league-leading $90,000 salary to $70,000. Kiner protested but Rickey replied, “Son, we could have finished last without you.”

posted by: DavidK on April 10, 2014  10:53pm

This is what democracy is all about!

posted by: LookOut on April 11, 2014  8:11am

Great job Mike.  It’s encouraging to see someone fighting for the little guy.  Too many folks shrug their shoulders and allow the machine to trample the residents.  I’m hopeful that this is the first step in reversing that trend.

As a famous judge once said “Sunshine is the best disinfectant” so keep turning over those rocks no matter how scary the findings are.

posted by: HewNaven on April 11, 2014  9:32am

Harries was extremely evasive and cross examination is the only way to pin someone down. It’s called the greatest invention of man for finding out the truth.

As humble as ever.

posted by: SwampfoxII on April 11, 2014  9:49pm

The BOA doesn’t know what hit it, having an aggressive trial lawyer there now who’s shaking things up.  They can complain about Stratton all they want, but it’s obvious by now that that won’t stop him.  So long as he has taxpayers’ interest at heart, I say Go Mike!

posted by: cedarhillresident! on April 13, 2014  8:34am

I just want to remind the long timers of the BOF that the public has testified to theses same things for close to a decade at the BOF hearings. Myself included. This is not new. The only difference is you were able to ignore the citizens…and Mike is a bit harder to ignore. If these things were addressed a decade ago when we first brought it to your attention…things would be alot better finacially in this city…but you stifled any alder that agreed with the citizens. And now the situation is 10 years worsened. At some point you are going to have to address in….the sooner the better. I hope that you become the leasers you were elected to be and start looking at what the man has presented to you.

connecticutcontrarian not all of them are on the BOF. And the ones that are are supporting all of this. This meetings are hours long only so much you can put in a paragraph.

posted by: Jones Gore on April 13, 2014  3:35pm

Keep on the Stratton. I spoke with a lot of people who like what you are doing, keep doing it.

posted by: Really? on April 13, 2014  5:34pm

Stratton is the best alder this city has.  The others seem to roll over and play dead at every obstacle. Fiscal responsibility is paramount and he gets it. Kudos

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