Birks Dives Into The Nitty-Gritty

Christopher Peak PhotoOne parent asked if she could serve food at a high-school dance without violating the district’s allergy policy.

Another parent asked if community groups could hold events after school without paying a $340 fee for security.

A third asked if he could touch up a building’s paint job himself without violating any maintenance contracts.

Superintendent Carol Birks fielded those hyper-specific questions at a coffee klatch Thursday night in Sound School’s library, the sixth open forum that she has held this school year.

As she shared her goals for the year, Birks told the audience that the district can do much better in its communication, helping parents feel respected and connected to their children’s schools.

Some two dozen parents and teachers showed up to pose their questions to the superintendent. Birks admitted that she often didn’t know the right answer, but she promised that her staff would follow up.

Even if she couldn’t solve their problem right away, she called these forums an important way for her to find out what’s really going on inside the schools, as she still acquaints herself with the district in her 10th month on the job.

“Coming here, it helps me to understand some things I may not see that we may not be doing as efficiently as we could,” Birks said. “They give me feedback on how we could improve our practices. I wouldn’t know otherwise in my day-to-day running around, because we have such a large organization.”

On Thursday night, Birks heard about the nitty-gritty of how that large organization works, as decisions made in Central Office roll down to the schools with unexpected consequences.

For instance, at Engineering and Science University Magnet School, after an administrator handed out a piece of peanut-filled candy and landed a student in the hospital, the school clamped down on any outside food that might set off another allergic reaction. But parents were unsure of whether the rules also applied to after-school events. They normally cook up a spread for school dances, but at the latest one, they were told they could pass out only bottles of water.

Birks said she didn’t know herself whether the rules apply after-school. “No one has raised that question to us,” she said. Briks said that she could meet with the district’s food-services director to see if they could cater meals with their ingredients that are already free of nuts, pork and shellfish.

In another example, at the Sound School, after budget cuts limited the amount of overtime for security guards, the school required a $340 fee to cover two security guards at any after-school events not held for parents.

A mom pointed out that Sound normally has only one security guard during the day across its five buildings, making it seem excessive to require groups to pay for two.

“Do we have to have two people here for a small event, when during the school day, when we have 330 kids here and 50 adults, we have one person?” the principal added.

Birks said that the facility fees are a reality with the district’s $8.9 million deficit

“Historically, I know we’ve been a lot more generous, but we have to fund it,” she said. “Every time we open a building to a church or a community, we still have to pay our staff to be there and someone has to incur the cost.” She said she’d have to look into the specifics of the $340 charge.

Throughout the rest of the night, others posed questions about letting community members could get involved in fixing up the school, using paraprofessionals as substitute teachers, and opting out of the Dalio Foundation-funded CT Rise program, and reviewing the results of a school-climate survey, among many others.

At the end, Birks said that she wants to make sure that the district’s rules and fees didn’t get in the way of parent involvement.

“I’m learning a lot about what matters to people, what’s important. There’s so many gifted people in this community, and we need to figure out how we get people more involved. That’s the next step,” Birks said.

“I’m working on this a lot, because I really feel strongly about the importance of relationships in this community,” she added. “That people don’t just see me as the person on the fifth floor, but I’m here with you in this work together.”

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posted by: LivingInNewHaven on February 1, 2019  5:08pm

Any way…it was said in one of the board meetings that parent events don’t have to pay the security fee.

posted by: NHPS411 on February 1, 2019  6:38pm

What This District Needs To Do Is Hire More Security Officers. There’s A Big Need For More Of Them In Our Schools. We Have To Keep Our Kids Safe.

posted by: Disgust on February 1, 2019  8:36pm

If Will Clark was still here he could have answered all those questions.  However, Birks is pushing all the knowledgeable people working in this district out.  Now we are just getting inexperienced leadership who don’t even realize what they don’t know.  This is just the beginning of the storm…

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on February 2, 2019  3:10pm

“Birks admitted that she often didn’t know the right answer, but she promised that her staff would follow up.”

Don’t hold your breath; I have not yet received any answer to the question I asked at the December community session.

posted by: Kuan Yin on February 2, 2019  3:57pm

This is just her way of bamboozling the audience. Her gift is gab and showwomanship. Remember all the theatrics around her transition into the job? Its all fluff and nonsense and most people dont know the difference. She is all about being in front of the public dressed to the nines and giving people rhetoric what they want to hear. there is no substance to this and yes agreed with Disgust if she did;t get rid of all the knowledgeable people who worked so hard in NHPS to build a solid district she would have answers to their questions. How could she stand there and say she doesn’t know? laughable and pathetic. She should be working with the schools providing the needed resources for kids. I understand school staff are begging for help everyday just trying to ensure the students are safe and educated and she is in front of an audience having coffee. Listen to the voices of those who know and things might get better before its too late.

posted by: Just a Question on February 2, 2019  4:15pm

These events are always scheduled either during the school day or (in this case) at exactly the same time as Parent-Teacher Night at all New Haven schools. This creates the impression that Birks wants to hold these Coffee Conversations with as few teachers and parents present as possible.

posted by: tmctague on February 3, 2019  8:43am

Gary Highsmith once said that if he was chosen as Superintendent, he’d set up a table at C-Town and Stop & Shop to introduce himself to families - I thought that was a great idea.  Parent engagement is important, and challenging, so hopefully they’ll continue efforts and try out some different strategies.

posted by: Blitheringidiot on February 4, 2019  7:22pm

I hope that the board, during an annual review, asks the Super about her scheduling of these coffee klatches during the school day and during parent/teacher conferences. Does she not know how to look at a whole year calendar to make her schedule? I was happy when she had one that was not at 9 am when I am at work. But to have it when I’m supposed to be meeting with my child’s teachers? C’mon.

But I’m just a blithering idiot.

posted by: ctddw on February 6, 2019  10:57am

Yes lets make a lot of promises that the budget can’t keep. Good thing she schedules these meetings when people cannot attend because she would make more promises because she is basically a yes woman.

posted by: Lion'sCub on February 6, 2019  9:11pm

I teach in NHPS.  Stop blaming Birks for a broken and corrupt, completely dysfunctional system that lots and lots of folks are profiting from.  She didn’t create the chaos, disorganization, massive ineptitude, and cronyism that has been here for years.  She inherited a broken, corrupt system. 

If she doesn’t know the answer to basic questions, there really is no one who has been here for more than a year who could jump in with the answers?  Really? Not one person?  Shameful. 

THAT she is struggling to get the information/materials/support/[insert any necessary thing for effective schools] that she needs to perform (like us teachers)...
THAT she somehow was given the task of closing 2 schools within two months of starting the job…
THAT she is a black woman that is being crucified for things OPENLY flaunted by the big boys club of admins…
is a reflection of how chaotic and ineffective things are and also a deeply-rooted misogynoir .  She can only look as prepared as the system, and trust me: the system is a shameful embarrassment.  Lots of people are breaking themselves trying to not be exposed for the frauds that they are.

posted by: ctddw on February 7, 2019  10:29am


I absolutely agree that the New Haven education system is completely dysfunctional,  broken and corrupt. However, every member of the system from the Board of Ed, the Teachers union, to the teachers themselves are complicit. There are legal means to rectify corruption in any organization but people don’t band together to correct the system and injustices. Sitting around complaining isn’t going to get the job done.

Yes, she inherited a broken, corrupt system but that was no secret. She knew that when she took the job. Did she miss the clue that the superintendent position has been a revolving door? And lets add to the chaos her “investigation” of teachers and forcing them to leave in large numbers. No one is going to want to work for a boss that makes them feel unwanted. That is demoralizing and counter productive to the teachers that still are employed. They too will feel like they don’t have a team and are left out on an island. So Birks is perpetuating the same behavior that you feel is making her unable to do her job. See how that works?

You mentioned cronyism. The whole city of New haven is full of cronyism and nepotism. How is that not going to trickle down to the school system? Just go to Meadow Street. With everything going on in the school system there should be hub-bub of activity and excitement. On the contrary, no one is excited to do anything and spend a whole lot of time complaining.

Honestly, I wish the departments of education at the state and federal level would come in and do a deep dive on the farce of a school system.