Hamden Ed Board Approves School Closings; Parents Decry North-South Divide

The Hamden Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday night to approve a controversial plan to restructure the town’s public schools,  including shuttering two elementary schools and reclaiming the building housing the Wintergreen Inter-district Magnet School.

The process revealed divisions in the town, where some parents living near the New Haven border said they see a “north-south” divide that leaves them with the “raw end.”

The vote took place at a crowded meeting held at Hamden Middle School.

With the vote, the board determined the plan it intends to follow to cut costs and deal with a state statute on racial balancing in public schools in an era of declining enrollment.

The plan includes six components, and is aimed to save the district an annual $3.8 million by 2022 and have student bodies conform to a state-mandated definition of racial balance:

• Moving all sixth graders to Hamden Middle School. This will require the construction of an extra wing on the building.
• Closing the Church Street School and repurposing the building.
• Closing the Shepherd Glen School and repurposing the building.
• Incorporating the Wintergreen school building into Hamden’s public school system. The Wintergreen Inter-district Magnet School is currently run by Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES), but the town owns the property. Click here to read more about the controversy.
• Creating intra-district magnet schools. Students from anywhere in the Hamden School District could attend these schools; admission would likely be by lottery.
• Creating universal pre-K.

Read a full “explainer” article about the plan here.

Tighter Ship

The plan comes in response to a number of factors.

First and foremost, state funding for public education has dwindled in the last few years. Schools Superintendent Jody Goeler said he does not see the situation getting better anytime soon with the state’s projected 10-figure budget deficits. The lack of funding has forced the district to figure out how to make a financially sustainable model that can weather the budget turmoil. That’s the only way the town can create the community it wants in 20 years, he said.

Second, enrollment has steadily dropped over the past decade. According to a presentation prepared for the school board by the consulting firm Milone & MacBroom, during the 2007-2008 school year, the district’s total enrollment was 6,254. By the 2017-2018 school year, that number had dropped to 3,350 students. Since the number of students in a district is a part of what determines how much funding the district receives from the state, that has meant less and less state funding every year, while the cost of maintaining all of Hamden’s schools has remained the same.

Finally, the state notified the district in June that the Shepherd Glen, Helen Street, and Church Street schools have “impending [racial] imbalances.” The state determines that a school has an impending imbalance if the proportion of minority (non-white) students in the school is fifteen percent greater or less than the district’s overall proportion. Hamden’s school district was 62.79 percent minority in 2017. All three schools deemed to have impending imbalances have minority populations greater than that.

“Not Going To Be Sleeping”

School board members called the decision difficult. Thursday night’s meeting grew heated at times.

“This is probably one of the most difficult decisions I [have been] forced to make,” school board member Myron Hul told the crowd.

Board member Lynn Campo followed Hul’s comment with an emotional appeal to the audience. “We are not going to be sleeping tonight again,” she said, close to tears.

“We’re trying to make a decision in the best interest of the town, and some of those decisions do involve change,” said board member Arturo Perez-Cabello.

Board member Morton Whitney told the crowd that “we’ve got a really good, wholesome plan.”

South Hamden: We Got Raw End

Many of the parents in the audience were from South Hamden, partly because the two schools that are now supposed to be shut down, are located in the southern part of the town.

In addition, a majority of the Hamden families that send their kids to the Wintergreen Inter-District Magnet School (WIMS) live in South Hamden.

South Hamden, which shares a border with New Haven, tends to be poorer than North Hamden, It has a larger proportion of racial minorities than the North.

Parents at the meeting said they will miss their schools.

Terence Jennings is the father of a kindergartener at Shepherd Glen. He said he loves how diverse Shepherd Glen is. He said the school is “very comfortable with dealing with students from all walks of life.”

Another Shepherd Glen parent, who requested that she not be named, said she likes the school’s open-classroom model the school has. Rather than having one teacher per classroom, four classes share one larger, open classroom space.

She said Shepherd Glen is a wonderful community, but that no school board members have actually come to the school to experience it.

Other parents echoed the sentiment that town officials have treated South Hamden families unfairly throughout the redistricting process.

In a particularly passionate address to the audience, South Hamden resident and Wintergreen parent Mike Barbatini pointed out the North-South divide in the town: “Never have I heard more North versus South than now.”

Barbatini has lived in Hamden for 10 years. He said he had never heard about the town’s North-South divide until the redistricting process started. Suddenly, he began to hear it all the time.

Barbatini, like many other parents, accused the town of pitting South Hamden schools against one another.

“It’s the Hunger Games,” he said in his remarks during the open forum portion of the meeting.

Many parents also brought up the topic of race. Because of the state’s racial balancing statute, three of Hamden’s most diverse schools were going to have to close (or relocate, in the case of Wintergreen), they noted. 

Wintergreen parent Jodie Melton noted that the Spring Glen school, which has a majority white population, remained untouched in the plan. The Spring Glen School has 35 percent minority enrollment. That’s about 27 percent below the district’s average.

How is it possible then that the Spring Glen school does not have a racial imbalance in the state’s view?

The 15 percent above or below the district’s overall proportion is not the only part of the racial balancing statute. The statute also states that in any district with greater than 50 percent minority enrollment, any individual school with between 25 and 75 percent minority enrollment is deemed a “diverse school,” and does not have to address an imbalance.

As a result, the state statute disproportionately affects schools with majority minority populations. This means that only Hamden’s most racially diverse schools are affected by the statute.

Parents and officials agreed that the statute is flawed. Myron Hul did not hesitate to point out its shortcomings.

“Quite frankly the state is archaic in their definition of racial balancing.” He said he wants to be at the forefront of efforts to change that definition.

Linda Chmielecki, whose son goes to the Helen Street School, expressed a good measure of disgust with the statute. While her son looks white, she does not.

“Look at me,” she said. “How do you tell my blond-haired blue-eyed son he can go to school, and ship off someone who looks like me?”

What About Wintergreen?

The school board’s approved plan depends on the town incorporating the Wintergreen school into the town’s public school district, the school board does not actually have any say over whether the town decides to take the building back. That’s up to the mayor and the Legislative Council.

According to Superintendent Goeler, the mayor and ACES are still in negotiations about whether ACES is going to buy the property. If the town ends up accepting a purchasing offer from ACES, the school board would have to reconsider the redistricting plan it approved Thursday evening. That might mean reconsidering the closure of the Church Street or Shepherd Hill schools.

One of the most heated moments of the meeting came when Myron Hul mentioned that Wingergreen is not what the school board envisioned it would be when it opened 20 years ago. After the meeting, he told the Independent that the school is “not living up to the original vision and intent that then Hamden Board of Education set in its expectations of that program.” He said that the vision of the school involved a longer school day, a longer school year, and a technological focus; the school has since dropped those three features.

Wintergreen parents maintained that the school has a great deal to offer because of the diverse community that it fosters. Rev. John Henry Scott III told the school board that “what you have created is a multiracial, multicultural, multi-ethnic school.”

Some welcomed the town’s decision to take back the building. Jacqueline Beirne, co-president of the district’s special ed PTA, said that incorporating the building into the public-school system would allow the district to put all of the special needs students under one roof. Currently, there are dedicated classrooms in every school for special needs students. Beirne said that system doesn’t work because not every school has the resources that are necessary to provide for those kids. If the district incorporates the Wintergreen building, all of the district’s special needs students would go there, alongside students who do not have special needs. That way, they would have all the resources necessary for them to thrive, but they would not have to be isolated from their peers without special needs, she said.

Wintergreen parents, on the other hand, remain determined to keep their school at some location.

Officials said the town wanted to take back the school partly because it pays tuition to ACES to send Hamden students there, and it got too expensive.  Melton argued that the town will still have to foot that bill, because, she predicted, most Wintergreen families will not leave the school, even if it’s forced to relocate.

“Our fight,” declared parent Thomas Figlar, “we’re not done.”

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