Top Schools Talent Jumps Ship

Midway through the school year, top administrators are heading for the exits, leaving decades of institutional knowledge and morale concerns in their wake.

In the last two months, Superintendent Carol Birks has received five letters of resignation from top Central Office positions, including Will Clark, who’s ending a decade-long career as the school district’s chief operating officer at the end of the month.

Already gone are Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Leadership Gil Traverso, Director of Choice & Enrollment Sherri Davis-Googe, Lead School Counselor Chaka Felder and Lead Teacher Librarian Robin Metaj.

Those departures add to the three other top administrators who have sent in resignation letters since Birks started in March: Director of Instruction Madeline Negron, Extended School Hours Coordinators Renee Osborne and Head Start Director Claudia Pero-McNeil.

During that time, Transportation Facilitator Teddi Barra retired as well, along with two principals and three assistant principals.

The chief financial officer and chief of talent initially approved by the Board of Education were also both never hired.

On the way out, administrators said they have felt stymied by the district’s leadership over the last several years, particularly in the lack of planning.

As money was handed out to consultants and contractors, they’ve felt their experience wasn’t trusted. As new grant-funded initiatives kept coming down, they’ve felt a lack of consistency distracted from lasting reforms.

“Unusual,” Not “Normal”

Christopher Peak PhotoThe exodus of New Haven’s top school administrators is starting to cause worry about a talent drain and a morale drop. Educators, both nationally and locally, said that the rash of mid-year departures weren’t a good sign.

Susan Moore Johnson, a research professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies how districts can build up a strong teaching force, called it “unusual” to have “so many key administrators leave during the school year.”

But Johnson pointed out that may be because Birks herself started at such a late date.

“This turnover may result from the fact that the superintendent was appointed mid-year and, therefore, might have needed time before these staffing changes could take place,” she said.

Even then, Johnson added, it’s still unusual if “these people quit, rather than being encouraged to leave.”

Ed Joyner, one of the Board of Education’s two elected members, said that the divisive superintendent search and the glaring budget deficit both discourage administrators and teachers from staying in New Haven, especially when higher-paying districts start calling.

“I don’t think it’s normal. I think it’s reflective of the chaos that we’ve had in the system, with the previous superintendent and on the board, to be honest,” he said. “It’s also the uncertainty of revenue streams. If they can go to places where there’s more stability, I think they would go. And I do know that there are people who are still in the system who want to leave.”

Joyner didn’t fault Birks for the departures, saying that the effects had been “cumulative.”

“These things don’t happen suddenly,” he said. “It’s just like boiling water: If you keep the heat up long enough, it goes.”

One classroom teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said she and her colleagues aren’t paying much attention to which higher-ups are leaving. The employee said that “frozen budgets and a top-down management style” are a bigger hindrance to doing their jobs well.

But the teacher added that more resignations could do long-term damage.

“We honestly don’t notice when these folks leave. Our work is much more focused on the day-to-day needs of young people to notice which bureaucrat is going where,” the teacher said. “I worry that longer term, we will feel the impact, if people with institutional knowledge keep leaving. [And] when news does get out about these departures, people’s cynicism will most likely increase which is a dangerous element when left unchecked.”

Clark Clocks Out

Thomas MacMillan PhotoClark is the most senior administrator resigning. He takes with him a storehouse of knowledge about what’s in the schools’ walls and what’s in the budget’s line-items.

In a statement, Superintendent Birks said that Clark had been “a collaborator for me as I have transitioned into New Haven,” just as her predecessors “counted on” his know-how.

“He effectively led a variety of divisions for many years and led many projects that will serve the District well for years to come,” she wrote. “I wish Attorney Clark well as he chooses to move to the next chapter in his career and know that he will continue to be a resource and passionate advocate for his home City and District.”

Previously assistant corporation counsel for the school board and then the city’s labor relations director, Clark left a law-firm partnership to return to the district in 2007, when then-Superintendent Reggie Mayo brought him on to tackle school reform.

 

Clark led the district through a school-construction boom, building and rebuilding 42 schools at a cost of more than $1.7 billion, mostly reimbursed by the state. More grants and rebates paid for a transition to energy-saving LED lights and security upgrades.

Recently, at Finance & Operations Committee meetings, Clark has touted the cost-cutting that’s often overlooked way down in the school budget.

In food service, Clark oversaw the transition to making meals in-house, after booting Aramark as the school-lunch provider in 2008. The district installed salad bars and sprouted schoolyard gardens, as it aimed for food that’s fresh and local. For the last three years, the schools haven’t had to contribute any money to food, though some complaints about the kitchen’s recipes still linger.

In custodial, Clark went the other way. He oversaw the transition to an outside facilities manager, after booting one-third of the unionized custodians in 2011. The district’s costs have decreased even as more classroom space was added, though again some complaints about cleanliness still linger.

His pet project was health and wellness, which led him to find money for school-based health clinics, including some that just opened for dentistry.

Tom Breen Photo“The last 11 years have been extremely exciting and rewarding for me, and it was my distinct pleasure to serve the citizens of New Haven, particularly the New Haven Public School students,” Clark said in a written statement. “I am confident in the foundation that exists within New Haven, to continue on a path to reach its goals and to support all students on their educational journey to be the best they can be.”

His last day is Jan. 2, 2019, before he transitions to the same role in Waterbury.

Consultants from The Management Solutions, a firm in Auburn, Mass., have been brought on to assist with preparing the district’s next budget (alongside the in-house financial team), at a contracted rate of $90,000 for the first six months.

Where The Others Landed

Christopher Peak PhotoIn addition to Clark, at least two administrators have found other jobs, while New Haven hasn’t found any replacements of its own yet.

On Oct. 15, Lead Counselor Felder switched over to supervising school counseling in Windsor, while continuing to serve as executive director of Higher Heights Youth Empowerment Program, a nonprofit she started in 2004 to increase college access.

Dolores Garcia Blocker, the district’s college and career pathways director, remains in charge of all counselors.

On Oct. 29, Choice Director Davis-Googe took over Hartford’s school enrollment process.

Michele Bonanno, the district’s magnet school coordinator, has been helping out while interviews are underway. Earlier this month, Birks said she’s looking for the next choice director

On Nov. 16, Lead Librarian Metaj left.

Ivelise Velazquez, the deputy superintendent, and Iline Tracey, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, both supervise academics, including library media specialists.

On Nov. 28, Assistant Superintendent Traverso, who’d been out on medical leave for three months, finally called it quits.

Tracey has been supporting his portfolio schools, alongside the other two assistant superintendents, Paul Whyte and Keisha Redd-Hannans.

Joyner said that the district’s limited budget means extra work for the administrators who are staying, as they cover for their former colleagues. He said that puts further strain on the system’s leadership.

“It’s like in ‘The 10 Commandments,’ when Pharaoh asked the slaves to build bricks without straw. It’s going to break people down,” he said. “I really feel bad for the people that work in the system. They deserve better.”

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posted by: NHLearner on December 14, 2018  2:39pm

1) Chaka Felder is also working for another district as well, not just doing Higher Heights, but she is greatly missed, she cared about school level issues.
2) Joyner says the resignations aren’t due to Birks. He is dead wrong and I am surprised since he usually understands educators’ perspective.
3) If you look at the previous article re the goals of the districts, it makes it sound like nothing good happened before Birks got here.
4) anything or any program that happens from now on, she needs to take credit for, not that any of us, whether central office or schools, do anything good at all without her direction.
I know that in the magnet schools, we are trying to develop partnerships and curriculum to help our kids, but our central office connection (Bonanno) is overwhelmed, and Birks doesn’t even care about our programs and initiatives and what we do because her and her lackeys can’t envision that anyone knows what they are doing except them.
5) I have heard from three other long-serving central office people ready to quit because of lack of support and trust. It’s not about resistant to change, its about people skills.

posted by: formerNHPS on December 14, 2018  2:50pm

Chaka actually went to Windsor Public Schools where she is the Director of School Counseling.

[Chris: Whoops, I didn’t realize that after seeing her at a recent F&O meeting for Higher Heights. The story has been updated.]

posted by: Conscience on December 14, 2018  3:48pm

Birks does bear some responsibility and will bear more if she fails to work on the multiple issues she inherited. The board is a major factor as it does not have the collective knowledge, wisdom, or leadership to help the inexperienced superintendent. However, some of the people who left were not as resourceful and skillful as advertised. Then we have the inexperience of many principals with an increasingly difficult student population that renders this current array of challenges as excruciatingly difficult.

I am not optimistic unless there are changes on the board and unless I see better judgment from Dr. Birks. The funny money problem and unwise investments in contracts further exacerbates the problems.

posted by: macarena75 on December 14, 2018  3:58pm

The morale has hit rock bottom with Birks.  As stated in other article, she is unethical, unfair, unprofessional and has not one EMPATHY bone in her.  She treats the employees with no respect!!

As for the former director of Choice and Enrollment, she left because she met her match—worst!
Michele Bonnano is NOT helping out as stated above, she is RUNNING that office with NO COMPENSATION and no choice along with her other job title.  My point also in last article, utilize the experienced staff and compensate them accordingly. Perfect example of how and why the morale at the New Haven Board of Education has hit rock bottom.  Birks has no respect for the staff!!!!!!!!!!! 

WILL CLARK—huge lost for NEW HAVEN PUBLIC SCHOOLS!! Congratulations!

CHAKA FELDER—huge lost for NEW HAVEN STUDENTS!! Congratulations!

Sad to see GOOD, HONEST, CARING folks getting mistreated, driven to resignation, driven to FMLA—driven to not liking what they are passionate about—educating and giving to the children & community of New Haven!
#timetospeakup #kuddostothosestillstandingbeingtreatedunfairly #timetowakeupnewhaven

posted by: WildwildWestEducator on December 14, 2018  10:00pm

They are not the only ones jumping ship. NHPS has been purging talent for years. It is a well known “secret” that it is who you known, not what you know. These people are just the latest who are tired of the BS. Stop recycling administrators and check for the talent you have before all those you have been trained leave like the others and don’t come back. The kids lose in the end

posted by: wearywaryparent on December 15, 2018  11:58pm

Losing Mr. Traverso is sad indeed. He has had a lot of experience in education and he genuinely cared about young people, their parents, and staff. Robin Metaj is also a great loss. She used to be the lead library teacher and while she is still listed on the NHPS website as being in that role, her position was changed going into this school year. I believe she was given a coaching position and the library media specialists (librarians) in New Haven lost their department head and still do not have a department head. A friend worked with Chaka Felder and had nothing but good things to say about her and her work.
These are losses that impact staff and therefore impact New Haven’s students.
We need to do better.

posted by: Nancyteach on December 16, 2018  12:45am

Losing Will Clark, and his knowledge and expertise, is a huge loss to the district. He should be the Mayor, if not the Superintendent.  Things are going to get a whole lot worse, before they get better.

posted by: mechanic on December 16, 2018  8:08am

Robin Metaj is also a huge loss for NHPS.  Not only did she lead the Library Media Specialists (not Lead Librarian—LMS teachers are far more than librarians), she also spearheaded much of the most effective professional development within the district.  Her work directly impacted how teachers teach, as well as making the LMS department stronger.

posted by: ChrisCNHTeach on December 16, 2018  11:03am

Well, this is confusing. I thought one of the top new goals was “recruiting and retaining talent”? Or does that mean only talent that has sworn allegiance and kissed the ring?
Say what you will about previous leaders, they didn’t try to surround themselves with yesmen and sycophants.

I know some teachers who could care less about what happens to central office people, but it is much better to have some experienced district people there who can share realities with leadership. If she isn’t listening to them, or worse, giving them what is needed to do the job, then no wonder they are leaving.
And then teachers follow, and believe me, and it isn’t like they are knocking down the doors to teach in my school at least.

posted by: observer1 on December 17, 2018  7:11am

@posted by: Conscience

Can you expand on exactly what you are trying to say by using the following statement for us non-educators? Are you implying that you are trying to teach in a what effectively is a war zone under siege by insurgents. 

“Then we have the inexperience of many principals with an increasingly difficult student population that renders this current array of challenges as excruciatingly difficult.”

posted by: formerNHIT on December 17, 2018  11:23am

Will Clark’s heart was in the right place and as BoE executive managers go he was unusually fair overall with his subordinates and careful with how he spent the taxpayers funds.  His departure is a great loss to the NHBoE.  Unfortunately like many other executives at BoE he had his pet vendors who were difficult to coordinate and manage and seldom worked well with the employee staff.  With his vendors, however, they also were low price which added value.

I doubt you will see another COO care as much about taxpayer value.

His departure should illustrate that NHPS is in decline.  I feel bad for the parents and students.