New Magnet School Divides Neighborhood

The city wants to tear down East Rock Magnet School —” a building some have compared to a concrete prison —” and build a new, smaller school on the same site. Younger families (like Joshia Brown, Sahar Usmani-Brown and daughter Athena, pictured) applauded the plan at a public meeting Monday night, while older neighbors opposed it.

More than 40 people showed up for the East Rock Management Team meeting at the school. Susan Weisselberg, coordinator of citywide school construction projects, noted to the crowd that the state pays 80 percent of the costs of school construction (95 percent for inter-district magnet schools.

But many older residents at the meeting said they’re at the point of having to sell their homes under the crushing tax burden. William Criscuolo said, “My taxes are out of sight, and anything you guys do to add to it is going to kill us.” His wife, Christine (pictured), said, “We’re senior citizens. Do we have to work until we die? We’re about to put our home on the market. It’s eating at our hearts.” Both she and her husband, as well as some other elders at the meeting, said they couldn’t see demolishing a perfectly good building.

Alderman Ed Mattison and school Principal Michael Conti joined Weiselberg in pointing out that the school —” built in the 1970s in an era when “open space” construction was all the rage —” no longer meets state regulations for acoustics and natural lighting. They expressed confidence that a new school would attract more neighborhood kids. Now only a quarter of the 800 students are from the immediate area (although some at the meeting said they’d tried to get their kids in and were turned away). The new school will have only 535 students in grades pre K-8, making the slots even more competitive.

Under the city’s master plan, every school in the district will be either renovated or rebuilt. Weisselberg said schools like East Rock are much harder to renovate than older, more traditional schools like Hooker, a few blocks away, which is another reason the city is proposing to demolish East Rock and build anew. She said she expects to get state approval for the $44 million project in the summer of 2007, then hire an architect and form a school-based advisory committee. Students would be moved to a swing space on Leeder Hill Road in Hamden in 2009 when construction begins, and the new school would open in 2011.

Alderwoman Elizabeth Addonizio, in whose ward the school is located, urged those with reservations or already in opposition to the project to withhold judgment in order to evaluate the project on its merits, and then to consider the funding issues. She suggested that a follow-up meeting could look at cost. She added, “I’m on the Finance Committee [of the Board of Aldermen] and we are looking at ways to alleviate the burden on taxpayers, especially seniors.”

When the meeting finally wound down after two and a half hours, people agreed to hold another meeting to discuss the issue of magnet schools versus neighborhood schools, who will be eligible for pre-K, cost issues, and what can be learned from the experiences of renovation or reconstruction of the 20 schools that have preceded East Rock in the city’s master plan.

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posted by: Josiah Brown on April 25, 2006  6:47pm

I attended the meeting described in the article and would like to comment about the issues raised.

Legitimate concerns about rising property taxes—‚Äù and the related problem of the need for
statewide property tax reform—‚Äù should largely be separated from the opportunity to build a new East
Rock school building (and indeed to continue improving school facilities city-wide). 

Connecticut’s reliance on local property taxes is widely recognized as placing a disproportionate burden on senior citizens, as an inequitable way of funding schools, and as a source of sprawl.  This system of funding needs to be changed.  Within New Haven itself, people like my own alderwoman—‚Äù Elizabeth Addonizio—‚Äù are right to explore means of easing the difficulties that many seniors, especially, face in retaining their homes.  The existing state property tax rebate for homeowners should be maintained or even expanded; this measure makes far more sense than simply abolishing car taxes, a gesture which would increase other tax burdens.  Various areas of potential budget savings, including aspects of certain capital projects, should be on the table.  Alderwoman Addonizio and others on the Finance Committee will make recommendations after studying the budget and listening to constituents.

But New Haven and its neighborhoods must seize the opportunity to rebuild or renovate its schools.  To
their credit, our state legislators and city administration have secured substantial state assistance for this school construction effort, which should not become tangled in the larger fiscal concerns. 

Neighborhoods and taxpayers should have significant input into the design and scope of the new or refurbished schools.  As was suggested in the April 24 meeting, the programming of the schools also deserves serious deliberation as the specifics of construction and finance plans emerge.  The hours during which schools are open to all community members, the number of students per school and how many come from the immediate blocks versus from the rest of the city or even from other municipalities in the case of interdistrict magnets—‚Äù such considerations will accompany the debate over brick and mortar.

We should acknowledge, too, that learning expectations today—‚Äù expectations for all students—‚Äù are greater than they were decades ago.  Our economy no longer offers many opportunities for people who have only a high school degree, let alone for those who do not complete high school.  School facilities are just a part of the equation; certainly some kids and teachers manage to thrive under substandard conditions.  Yet the learning environment is important and can meaningfully enhance the attitudes of school communities, as well as the practical tools of classroom management—‚Äù as East Rock Principal Michael Conte articulated at the meeting.

So build this new school and other city schools for the benefit of New Haven students and taxpayers, and with their contributions not only financial but also imaginative and participatory.  Carpe diem.