Schools, Doubting Bailout, Plan $10M Cut

Christopher Peak PhotoExpressing a willingness to make tough decisions, the Board of Education voted for staff to come up with $10 million in possible cuts for next year — even if that means closing schools.

The board voted unanimously to seek that look at a more austere budget Monday night at Celentano Biotech, Health and Medical Magnet School, the new location for the board’s twice-monthly meetings.

With the vote, the school board is asking the school district to go one notch tighter after a year of belt-tightening measures. Already, as state aid drops and federal grants expire, administrators are trying to close a $7.9 million hole this year and find $9.3 million in savings for next year just to maintain current services. They’d hoped to balance the rest of next year’s budget with $10 million in support from the city.

But school board members said the district should prepare a budget that doesn’t rely on an increase getting past the alders, particularly as Mayor Toni Harp said she’s asking her departments to draft plans for cuts of up to 15 percent.

“We’re done kicking the can down the street,” said Jamell Cotto, the board’s vice-president.

He made a motion requiring the school district’s central office to plan for reductions in transportation, personnel and contractual services, even if that requires closing schools. He asked for the findings to be presented at the next Finance & Operations Committee meeting, which will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 19, a day later than usual because of President’s Day.

Will Clark, the district’s chief operating officer, now has one week to recommend the best way to chop off an extra $10 million from next year’s budget, representing 5.1 percent of the projected expenditures.

“If we have to merge and close schools, then make the recommendations to us. Don’t dance around it,” said Darnell Goldson, the board’s new president. “If you can’t do it, then we’ll find somebody who can. This budget needs to be put in line.”

Harp called cost-cutting the safest route for the Board of Education to stay solvent. Due to the amount of tax-exempt property in New Haven, the city has limited ability to raise its own revenue to make up for what the state used to cover under the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program, she said. The mayor is currently asking “institutional partners,” like Yale University and Yale-New Haven Hospital, to step up their payments, but there’s no guarantee those could stave off reductions.

“There may have to be some decisions about whether we have too many schools for the population we have,” Harp said. “It’s really up to this board to make that decision, but ultimately, if we’re not going to get the money from the state, if we can’t get the money from our taxpayers, and we can’t afford to go bankrupt, what are we going to do? We’re going to have to reduce the size of government. It’s not going to be easy.”

Given that fiscal reality at City Hall, Goldson said he doesn’t plan on repeating last year’s mistake of expecting revenue that probably won’t materialize. Last year, he said, the district started $3 million behind because the school board approved a “wishful-thinking budget” that bet on an $8 million increase.

This time around, he said, he’s factoring lowered expectations in early. “The city is not going to give us $10 million dollars; they’re not going to do it,” Goldson said. “We don’t plan to play that game anymore. You have to bring a realistic budget to us.”

Among the options he said he’d like to see investigated are combining the alternative high schools and closing the smallest traditional high school, Dr. Cortland V. R. Creed Health & Sports Sciences, formerly known as Hyde, which has been in temporary quarters in North Haven since 2013.

The idea of closing or consolidating some of the district’s smaller schools has arisen sporadically in recent years, then shot down when students or parents showed up at board meetings to object. Creed has about 220 students, according to the public schools website.

Asked about school closures after the meeting, Clark said, “Everything is on the table.”

Regular Accountability

Goldson said the board members might’ve avoided such drastic changes if they’d had a better sense of the district’s finances before now. Board members said they just found out about the $7.9 million deficit at a meeting with Clark earlier this month.

Previously, interim Superintendent Reggie Mayo had alerted the board of a $4.6 million deficit when he first stepped back on the job, and he had warned the board more recently that the state’s stormy finances could cascade down to city schools. At meetings in August and September, he gave updates about the proposed budgets being debated in the capitol.

But Goldson said that heads-up wasn’t good enough, arguing the board “didn’t have a clue” how money was being spent.

“We didn’t do anything to adjust, not a thing. We kept hiring. We kept doing anything we could to spend money,” he said. “Our eyes were closed because we never got financial reports.” With those he said, he would have seen “a number and a minus sign in front of it” and started asking questions.

As part of Cotto’s proposed reforms passed on Monday night, the school administration must present monthly updates about the district’s budget, similar to what the alders receive, starting on Mar. 26.

Mayo said that he hadn’t been withholding information from the board; he just didn’t have reliable numbers himself.

Even though the long-overdue budget was finally signed in October, the dollar amounts coming from Hartford have kept changing, Mayo said. While the two-year budget preserved current levels for the Education Cost Sharing formula, the largest chunk of aid to cities, the state’s other formulas are still being adjusted, including for special education, magnet schools and turnaround programs.

“You’re right that this is a moving target,” Cotto conceded, “but we will hit it. I want to make that clear.”

Mayo added that his team wasn’t trying to send the district into the red. Mayo said he’ll continue battling against the deficit until he goes back into retirement next month.

“I feel a little disrespected. We’re just as concerned about this stuff as you are. Probably more so, because it impacts our job,” he said. “Some of this stuff is not as easy as just talking big and bad.”

Goldson emphasized that he didn’t want to cast blame on anybody. He said the reductions are about moving forward pragmatically.

“The fact is we know that the state doesn’t have the money. They’re giving us less. It’s unfair; it’s not right. But it is reality,” he said. “We’ll continue to go up there [to the capitol] and hopefully vote out some of the folks that are not doing what they need for the school system, but in the meantime, we have to figure out how to resolve this problem.”

In one of the first tests of fiscal restraint, the board debated creating a $70,000 executive assistant position for the incoming superintendent, a secretary position that previous administrators had. Goldson and Harp argued that incoming Superintendent Carol Birks needs the support as she develops plans for the district. But in a surprise 4-2 vote, the other board members tabled the employee’s promotion to executive management.

Other Reforms Passed

In response to advocacy by the NHPS Advocates, a new group pushing for accountability in the school board’s decision-making, Cotto’s motion also required central office to upload the board’s bylaws online within a week, start answering questions asked during public comment within two weeks, and provide staff to take minutes on committee meetings within 30 days.

Cotto asked for a report on the district’s translation services, seeking estimates on the number of families who primarily speak a foreign language, the number of languages spoken, the number of documents that need to be translated, the equipment available for simultaneous translation at board meetings and the total cost.

He also said the board itself would pass an ethics policy by Mar. 26 and recommend new standards for the procurement process by June 30.

Board member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur asked what that means for contracts approved in the next four months. Board member Ed Joyner asked about the vendors who are already being paid. The board agreed to develop a protocol to evaluate whether the district is getting its money’s worth from contractors.

“I hope the rhetoric translates into action,” said Sarah Miller, a member of NHPS Advocates.

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posted by: LookOut on February 13, 2018  9:22am

Optimistic but suspicious….does T Harp really believe that she won’t tax her way out of this or does she just think that is what she should say?  The Board of Ed has been bloated and wasteful for years - I read a blue ribbon panel report 10 years ago that stated that excess admin and maintenance costs were choking the district.  Those chickens have come home to roost.  Let’s hope the Board has the courage to make the cuts needed.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on February 13, 2018  9:30am

“You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.”—Miracle Max

The cuts are surely coming, but surely the board and district officials could plan them carefully and collaboratively over time instead of slapdash like this.  Wouldn’t it be responsible to involve the new superintendent in the details of these cuts?

I also can’t understand how anyone could say “We kept hiring. We kept doing anything we could to spend money,” and then vote in favor of $70,000 for a new administrative assistant position.

posted by: JohnTulin on February 13, 2018  10:52am

Fewer schools = fewer administrators, fewer coaches, fewer ‘deans’....less cost and less waste….and no change in the outcome.

posted by: 1644 on February 13, 2018  11:35am

The deficit has been obvious since at least April of last year, when it was apparent that the increases proposed in Malloy’s budget were not going to happen.  Nonetheless, Harp not only included those increase in her budgets, she excluded Malloy’s shift of teacher retirement to the towns. The BoE is like Claude Rains in Casablanca, Shocked, shocked I tell you, that there is a deficit. Cancel Strong, and close other schools.  From the DOMUS Facebook page, “Domus is sad to announce that Domus Academy, the New Haven Public School program we’ve operated since 2010, will be closing at the end of June 2017. ” It’s a start.

posted by: urbanED on February 13, 2018  12:37pm

Isn’t 10 million about what the new Strong school building will cost?

http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/new_strong_school_gets_a_lease/

posted by: Noteworthy on February 13, 2018  2:02pm

The Sky Really Is Falling This Time Notes:

1. Taxpayers have been advocating an end to new school construction, a reduction in fancy designs of the schools and a consolidation of schools we have to cut down on headcounts and other related costs.

2. We are finally vindicated by the mayor’s comments - but it is a day late and millions of dollars short. The mayor just pushed through after a one year delay - another new school on the campus of SCSU.

3. For the longest period of time, the NHPS has been a cesspool of the connected and well heeled. It was used to create a middle class and function as an employment agency. It has served the citizens poorly and the time to consolidate, get real and manage its finances is long overdue.

4. It’s just sad that all warnings, all impassioned admonitions were intentionally, systematically ignored. Even with some schools consolidated and others shut down - we’ll still be on the hook for tens of millions in debt service.

posted by: theNEWnewhaven on February 13, 2018  4:13pm

CANCEL construction at Southern?

CANCEL the jobs of those who advocated for that school to go in AFTER taxpayers pleaded for them NOT to build it.

CANCEL the lease for ANY schools that we RENT.

CANCEL this administration’s redundancies brought on by NEPOTISM.

I can name many but then this wouldn’t get published.

Maybe it’s BEST we keep building rental buildings in town as any SMART investor would see this town as a TAX HELL with how much we continue to give away.

posted by: 1946 on February 13, 2018  4:21pm

DOMUS Academy was closed last year. The program is now run through ACES for more money than was paid to Domus. #facts.

posted by: TimeforChangeInNewHaven on February 13, 2018  7:00pm

Mayo feels “disrespected”  and so do the people who work for you and students. Share your findings and stop hiding financial information.

if you want 10 million tighten policies and practices. Why?????

Visit schools budget where funds are hidden and check certifications where staff are not certified and paid salaries of over 50 thousand dollars.

START AT HUMAN RESOURCES!

Nepotism= loss in money for kids

Oh shut schools down that were designed to purposefully segregate students under the guise of student choice.  How is there a Celentano and hooker blocks from each other and one is high performing and the other is low performing?  Can the kids who live in Newhall come to the wonderful school Hooker too?

posted by: TimeforChangeInNewHaven on February 13, 2018  7:03pm

Comments made by noteworthy and newnewhaven are on point

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on February 13, 2018  9:08pm

The New Haven Board of Education is facing a monumental financial crisis. The question is will they address the problem honestly and logically, or oxymoronically?
Some of the Board members are talking “big and bad” about what they now intend to do, but do these tough-talkers have the courage and integrity to abandon the politicization of the Board, the patronage, the excessively obese bureaucracy of the New Haven Public Schools?
The new slogan coined by this new Board is: “WE’RE DONE KICKING THE CAN DOWN THE STREET!” ‘This stops today’ cried Jamel.
But everybody knows actions always speak louder than words.
The BOE called on the Mayo administration to submit $10 million in recommended budget cuts.
Herein lie some of the irony.
The BOE declared that they may have to close some schools, yet plans have been underway to build a new multi-million dollar school on the SCSU campus.
There is tough talk of cutting costs for transportation, yet most of our neighborhood schools are now gone.Most of our kids are bused throughout the city, and to two towns outside of the city.
The BOE is considering cutting personnel. That often means cutting teachers, paras, counselors, nurses, & security, not top administrators. Yet last night the BOE revealed they were planning to fill a $70,000 a year administrative assistant position for the new superintendent that has been vacant for years! This job was never posted so that current, experienced central office staffers could have applied!
The BOE, over Harp’s objection, voted to table action on this position. Some would call that KICKING THE CAN DOWN THE STREET! Here is an immediate $70,000 BUDGET CUT!
The BOE advocates reductions in contractual services, yet continues to support some questionable NO BID CONTRACTS. Shopping competitively is a way to save money!
Tough talk requires tough CONSISTENT action to be meaningful and effective.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on February 13, 2018  9:40pm

(Continued)
New Haven has many schools and too many administrators. Instead of considering consolidating schools, the BOE should consolidate many of these central office administrative positions, many of which are blatantly superfluous and redundant. There are so many of them that some disappear into the woodwork because nobody knows what they do, and sometimes nobody knows where they are!
Although Dr. Mayo inherited a $4.6 million deficit from the former superintendent Garth Harries, and has worked ceaselessly to reduce it, the new BOE president had the audacity to say to him about addressing the current budget crisis, “If you can’t do it, then we will find somebody who can. This budget needs to be put in line.”
Big and bad talk will not get the job done. Talk is cheap. Tough, effective action requires skill, decisiveness, wisdom and collaboration, not threats
Dr. Mayo, a skilled, experienced, legendary and highly respected superintendent, has a little more than a month remaining in his contract. He will continue to do his best to address these economic challenges. Most residents of this city have great confidence in Dr. Mayo’s skills and his life-long commitment to this school district.
The president of this BOE is not going to find anyone to replace him.

posted by: Honest in New Haven on February 14, 2018  5:59am

Mr. Payne:  What are you talking about???  All the budget bloating and unnecessary school building took place under Mayo!  All the blatant nepotism—and dumping of political cronies into high-paying school jobs—was facilitated by Mayo for DeStefano.  Even since HUD almost took over the Housing Authority, the school system has been the last bastion of political patronage in New Haven, and some are hanging on to it at all costs.  The sad truth is that there is no improvement in sight, and with the current BOE, I do not expect much that will benefit students.  This is all about influence and who will get to “control” the incoming Supt.  Improving educational outcomes for the kids are the last thing these folks care about.

posted by: Inside 165 on February 14, 2018  10:31am

The bigger problem is what are we going to do about the City’s over 10 million dollar deficit?  Only Toni Harp, the same person the spent the State into massive debt, could propose adding 30 million to last years budget when everyone knew the state was broke and new money was definitely not coming our way. This city is drowning in debt under Harps spending speees and $20k raises for her cronies and $10k for herself show her disregard for us and her complete incompetence. Hey Alders try, just try doing your jobs this year. You might want to actually take a look at the budget and learn what you waste our money on.

posted by: wendy1 on February 14, 2018  10:54am

Thank you Noteworthy and Inside 165….since Al P. left, I dont hold out much hope for the BOA to do anything useful here.

posted by: FacChec on February 14, 2018  2:38pm

So what’s all the hoopla about Darnell, you and Cotto went through all this explanation to say what? All your really doing here is reducing the in increased ASK of $10M by $10M. That still leaves the taxpayer of New Haven and the state of CT with financing about $400M of BOE funds, funds here-to-fore used partly as slush fund pay-outs to the Mayor’s financial contributors and cling on such as Kimber.  Until you develop a budget which shows line item revenue against expenditures on a monthly basis, you continue to just provide political spin on a level elevated from previous Boards of education. 2016/17 ECS, funding level $185M. 2017/18 ECS proposed funding level $185M. So what’s the biggie??? Stop pretending you guys are doing something here.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on February 15, 2018  9:11am

>> ” Until you develop a budget which shows line item revenue against expenditures on a monthly basis”

That line-item budget does exist, just on an annual basis.  A full copy of the 2015-16 budget and a proposed draft from last spring for 2016-17 are available at http://www.nhps.net/node/3271

>> “2016/17 ECS, funding level $185M. 2017/18 ECS proposed funding level $185M. So what’s the biggie?”

Glad you asked, because it is a biggie.  While keeping ECS the same (which is to say, never fully funded), the state has severely cut most of the supplemental grants like the magnet grant, while other large outside grants the district has relied on have ended (TIF).  At the same time, the student population has increased and the state keeps coming with new “unfunded mandates” to eat up more of that amount.  The proposed increase represented what would be needed just to maintain the exact same levels of everything as this year.

posted by: agor on February 15, 2018  4:53pm

schools need to be closed and consolidated. they are too big and extremely costly to maintain. there are too many high paying administrators at most of these schools but all they want to cut is the support staff. start at the top and then work down.