Expressing 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.”
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.