In 5-1 Vote, Ed Board Backs Montessori Expansion

Christopher Peak PhotoThe Board of Education plans to tell state officials that it’s on board with extending Elm City Montessori School’s charter for another five years. But it will also send the state a message that it could use more financial support to keep the school open.

That result, which came in a 5-1 vote at Tuesday night’s regular meeting at Celentano School, ended the board’s involvement in deciding whether to renew Elm City Montessori’s charter — their first significant review since a group of moms founded the school.

After visiting the school and hearing from its supporters, the board members agreed to let the school grow up to eighth grade, even as they expressed concerns about how keeping the school open would affect the total budget’s bottom line.

Ed Joyner, one of the board’s two elected members, was the only one to vote against the renewal, calling it unfair to keep a charter open after closing Cortlandt V.R. Creed and two alternative high schools.

The matter now goes to the State Department of Education, which plans to make a site visit on Nov. 28. The agency will make a recommendation to the Connecticut State Board of Education for a final decision about whether to continue allowing the charter school to operate.

Currently split between early childhood classes in Fair Haven and elementary school classes in West Hills, Elm City Montessori is now entering its fourth year with 198 students.

Its the only school of its kind in Connecticut: a charter school that’s still under the local school board’s supervision.

Unlike “state charters,” public schools (like Achievement First) that get approval and money directly from the state to operate independently, “local charters” fit within the district’s offering of traditional public schools under the Board of Education’s supervision. In both cases, the schools get to operate on some of their own rules, while receiving public money to operate. The only difference is governance.

If its charter is renewed, the school plans to enroll nearly 300 students all at the Blake Street location by 2022.

On Tuesday night, a “green wave” of roughly 150 supporters again packed the school cafeteria to make their case. Kids ran throughout the room, dodging in between adults’ legs. They delivered a petition with 450 signatures, and they lined up to speak in two-minute increments.

Pearl, a first-grader, told the board that the school offered “good training to be a grown-up.” Multiple parents agreed, even for themselves.

At first, “I was surprised by the tremendous pressure my new friends put on me to ‘save’ my child from the New Haven public school system. People like me, I quickly learned, were expected to put their kids in private school or flee to suburbia,” said Resha Cardone, an associate professor at Southern Connecticut State University. “I resisted this pressure every step of the way, choosing instead to live and educate my child in New Haven.

“She has gained so much more from this experience than I could possibly describe,” she went on. “ECMS is a school that is deliberately creating compassionate, informed and engaged young people — the very type of people this country, this state and this city so desperately need. I’m committed to the public school system, provided that my child has a place to go in the community.”

Only one person had tough words for the school.

Sarah Miller, a mom at Columbus Family Academy, said that she strongly supports Montessori education within the district, and she particularly appreciates this school’s ongoing anti-racism and anti-bias training, their child-centered curriculum and limited reliance on standardized tests, and their diverse and engaged community. But she said she didn’t think it was right that those things should only be found at a charter school.

“I support all of these things, strongly. But I do not support offering them to only the few hundred children who get into Elm City Montessori,” she said. “For the privilege of continuing to receive public school funds for a privately-governed operation, I hope that Elm City Montessori will partner with our wider community to make child-centered, developmentally-grounded education a right for all, rather than its current status as the privilege of a few.”

When it came time to vote, the board members spoke in near-unanimous support of the school — except for Joyner, who said, “We can’t afford it, not now.” Others said they believed the district could make the finances continue to work — if they had the school’s help.

Under state law, Elm City Montessori receives the same amount that the district allocated per pupil two years prior. That means that, this year, the district contributed $1.98 million in in-kind support (in the form of unionized teachers and support staff, school lunches, and rent and utilities), along with roughly $680,000 in cash. The school supplements its budget with outside grants and other fundraising.

Mayor Toni Harp asked for the school’s administration to commit to budget-cutting strategies, and President Darnell Goldson asked for parents to commit to making a stand at the state capitol to fight for more funding for public education.

“This is not a tough decision for me. These are our children. It’s not them or us. These are our students, and our response has to be to make sure they get an education,” Goldson said. “I am not going to make a decision on how these kids are educated or not based on whether the Board of Alders, the state legislature or the federal government gives us the money we need. They’re under-paying us for educating our children, and I’m not going to let them starve us to death.”

After the 5-1 vote, the supporters burst into applause.

“They get to keep the school!” one girl yelled out, hugging a buddy next to her.

Right after, the board members turned their attention to the $8.89 million hole in next year’s budget. The Elm City Montessori supporters left. The green wave had subsided, and only the usual faces still sat in the cafeteria. Miller noticed how empty it looked.

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posted by: Noteworthy on November 14, 2018  1:09pm

Green Wave Notes:

1. Stupid decision.

2. $8.9 million deficit and growing.

3. It is clear this board has zero personal or professional education ballz. To promise to keep a school open that you can’t afford to keep open is disgraceful. That’s like promising your family you’ll take them to DisneyWorld at a cost of $2,000 when you have $2 in the bank and no idea and no hope of being able to fulfill the promise.

posted by: AnnieMac on November 16, 2018  8:20am

This school has an executive director and a principal.  There are fewer than 200 students.  How much money does Eliza make and who pays her salary?  Webb makes in excess of 140k.  With benefits, these 2 people alone must cost the BOE 300k.  That alone is $1500 per student.  Thank you Dr. Joyner for your integretity.  I’m sure we will see more of this from Birks.

posted by: edgewooder on November 16, 2018  11:06am

AnnieMac, I do not believe both principal and ED positions are BOE funded. ED funds come from elsewhere.

posted by: Teachergal on November 16, 2018  6:14pm

Montessori is an early childhood program. Don’t ruin a good thing by making it a k-8, big mistake!