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”
The 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
Clark 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.
“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
In 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.”