New Haven’s teachers union president popped a question for his adversaries in the charter movement: If you want a new relationship, why should we pay you for it?
The union president, Dave Cicarella (pictured in video), posed that question during a stormy four-hour public discussion last week about a planned partnership between the Board of Education and the Achievement First (AF) charter network to create a new experiment school called Elm City Imagine. (Read about all that here.)
AF and public schools Superintendent Garth Harries are promoting the school as a way to achieve a broader goal: Create a model working relationship between the Board of Ed and the charter network, rather than fight the way the two sides do in other cities. AF has promised to address detractors’ concerns—about mid-year transfers, about equity in the charter school’s policies on enrollment, discipline and transparency; even about publicly criticizing each other—as part of the Elm City Imagine deal.
Cicarella’s question hangs over the debate as the controversial proposal moves forward—and the charter-Board of Ed relationship, a part of New Haven’s school-reform formula, takes at least a temporary setback.
Critics have questioned whether the district would really benefit from the arrangement, and at what cost.
“Adopt these policies across all your schools in your network without reservation and without holding a gun to our heads, saying, ‘Well we’re going to do it as long as you give us a new school,’” Cicarella challenged AF at last week’s meeting. “Where have you been for the last 15 years? Why haven’t you been here at the board with these policies?”
AF CEO Dacia Toll responded to accusations that NHPS is asked to spend too much money in the deal to improve relations. She told the Independent that those accusations result from a “fundamental misunderstanding about how the finances work,” and that the Elm City Imagine partnership could eventually save the district millions of dollars. She said she could not commit to proceeding with all the policy changes absent a deal on Elm City Imagine.
Starting as a K-1 and eventually expanding to fourth grade, Elm City Imagine will be AF’s first school using the “Greenfield” model. The model, designed with the help of the inventor of the computer mouse, is aimed at inventing the school of the future. It encompasses a variety of creative teaching and learning methods, including a calendar alternating eight weeks of regular classes with two weeks of career “expeditions” and daily blocks of “self-directed learning.” AF is also planning to create a Greenfield middle school beginning with next year’s fifth graders at Elm City College Prep Middle School.
Last Monday, public schools Superintendent Garth Harries released a draft of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) delineating the terms of the proposed agreement between AF and the district. The district would provide $700 in cash and in-kind services per student for a school that AF would run and staff—not including the legally required contribution for transportation and special education services.
Toward A New Relationship
The MoU addresses frequent criticisms about the way charter networks such as AF operate, including policies that send its students to district schools mid-year and deny entry to transfer students. The document lays out various solutions to establish “equity” in the way AF recruits and enrolls its students, as well as to allow for increased collaboration between the charter network and the district.
Toll explained some of these at last week’s public meeting: AF will make sure all of its schools “engage in proactive outreach” by reaching out to students through district pre-K programs, the housing authority and the state Department of Children and Families. And all families enrolled in Head Start and other early childhood programs will be automatically registered in the placement process for kindergarten in Elm City and Amistad, unless they actively choose other options.
All AF schools would fill any empty seats as they become available, taking in mid-year transfers; they would also work harder to limit the number of students who leave their schools in the middle of the year for district schools. A joint district/AF-run “enrollment panel” would consider all transfer requests after the start of the school year, disallowing any “except in cases of significant and reasonable health and safety concerns.” The schools would also be required to “to work to ensure that the educational experiences of students seeking transfer is purposeful, supportive, and meaningful,” according to the MoU.
Board members, AF teachers, a city representative and community members would gather three times a year to discuss and examine best practices at neighborhood and charter schools. AF schools would work to implement restorative practices, which the district has taken on this year, with the help of a teachers union grant. And AF would submit data such as test scores and graduation rates to the board’s yearly reports, as well as disclose any resources they receive from the government or private donations.
Toll said she did not know whether AF would commit to all of the other parts of the MOU if the board votes against the school.
“We have not considered that question in isolation. I’m sure we would do at least part of it,” she said, adding that she could not actually say for sure. “Up to this point, we have considered it as a total partnership package,” which started because AF wanted to create a new public school.
“Dave [Cicarella] has said to me repeatedly, ‘You’re only doing this because you want a new school,’” she said. “I’m saying, ‘Yes that’s how this all started.’ I’m not trying to deny his claim.”
Technically the district would receive “significant class size reduction” as long as AF creates a new school, irrespective of the Board of Ed’s $700 per child financial contribution, Harries said. But he said AF would likely not open the school without that extra monetary boost from the Board of Ed. “It would have the same class-size impact whether or not we were part of the equation,” he said. “The difference there is their sense that, from their own equity perspective, they feel like they need additional resources from us in order to responsibly open the school.”
Toll said AF cannot afford to open a new school in New Haven without the board’s help, because of “an ongoing operational deficit”—its current schools “have to rely on philanthropy,” which is stretched thin.
Crunching The Numbers
Toll said the partnership would bring just over $6 million annually to New Haven, since charter schools receive about $11,000 per child, for an eventual number of 550 students at Elm City Imagine. Unlike in other states, Connecticut education funding is not a simple per capita calculation, and district school funding is a separate process from public charter school funding. The Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula determines the amount of money cities and towns receive from the state, taking into account a community’s income levels and property tax base. The district spends about $14,000 per child in operational costs.
With more students going to Elm City Imagine who would have otherwise gone to neighborhood schools, the district will have fewer students to support with the same amount of state funding—resulting in an overall gain, Harries and Toll said.
Harries said he would use that saving to reduce class sizes at between five and nine over-enrolled, struggling neighborhood schools, either by nine students per classroom at five schools or five students per classroom at nine schools. Although the MoU proposes that the district pay $700 per student as well as costs for nursing, special education and transportation, “all of those are relatively small dollar figures. If those students were in our schools, it would be costing us all those things and more,” he said.
As of this Monday afternoon, Harries said he was still “working on” figuring out official estimates for part-time nursing services for AF schools, but that the cost would hover around $100 per student. Transportation would cost about $1,000 per student, though that does not take into account whether buses will have to be added for students to get to a new location—the proposed school’s campus in West Hills instead of an existing school. But Harries said since Elm City Imagine’s schedule would keep many students in school until 5 p.m., the district might be able to “reuse buses” instead of adding “significant numbers of buses when we bus their students.”
“There will be some folks who say that if there’s any sense of financial transactions, that’s kowtowing. I’m confident we’ve negotiated a very good financial deal for the district. And one that, most importantly, benefits students in New Haven Public Schools,” Harries said.
Cicarella argued that enrollment numbers fluctuate wildly in an urban district such as New Haven, unlike in more stable suburban districts. “I’m disappointed that they’re saying, ‘You’re going to see this revenue,’” he said. In-kind services will likely “chew up” more money than expected, especially building maintenance, which is another fluctuating cost, he argued.
“They’re not writing a check,” he said. Any money saved from the proposed deal “could be used to plug another hole” in the budget. New Haven is already underfunded by $25 million, which is 14 percent less than its ECS target amount, he said.
Harries said the underfunding is “part of the budget dynamic we’ve always had. There’s no doubt that we as the district can and will continue to fight for resources for ourselves. The question is how do we invest and use those resources in an equitable way.”
In a way, both sides are right, said State Senate President Martin Looney. Generally, the ECS grant has been stable or has increased year to year regardless of enrollment numbers. But the state does not know exactly how much money it will allocate toward education next fiscal year until budget discussions begin next week. “It’s too early to say,” he said, though the ECS is “unlikely to decrease.”
Does it make sense for the district to vote on the partnership before state budget decisions come through?
“It’s up to them,” Looney said.
The MoU allows the district to terminate the deal if there is a significant change in the way its schools are funded, Harries said.
The Hartford Comparison
A similar partnership already exists in Hartford. AF and Hartford Public Schools to collaborate financially on AF-Hartford Academy. Hartford’s board provides $500 per elementary and middle school student and $2,400 per high school student, as well as a one-time payment of $400,000 to cover operational costs.
Compared to Hartford, New Haven is barely putting in any money and getting out richer, Toll said. “It could cost [the district] $4 million to do what we would do, to do it on their own. Why delay the school?”
Discussion will continue Tuesday at two Board of Ed committee meetings, the Governance and Finance and Operations Committees. The board will further discuss the terms of the MOU, going through a more detailed cost-benefit analysis of the proposed financial partnership, Harries said. The public can attend both meetings and will be allowed to comment at the 5:30 p.m. Governance Committee meeting. Both committee meetings will be held at John S. Martinez School at 100 James St., beginning with Finance and Operations Committee at 4 p.m.
For previous coverage:
• Blue Stickers Square Off Vs. Red Shirts On Charter Deal, As Harp Keeps Options Open
• On Eve Of Ed Board Debate, 50 Heavy-Hitters Back Charter Plan
• Teachers, Parents Organize Against Charter Deal
• The School Of The Future Gets A Dry Run
• Teachers Union Prez Pens “Imagine” Critique
• Charter Plans Detailed; Parents Weigh In
• Elm City Imagine Sparks Debate
• NHPS, AF Team Up On Experimental School
• Elm City Charter Eyed For Futuristic “Conversion”
• City’s Charter Network Hires San Francisco Firm To Design The K-8 Public School Of The Future