Any pre-existing rifts between outspoken Hartford community leaders and the Board of Education have widened in recent days with the aftershocks of the Fiscal 2017 City and School District budget proposals.  The Board needs to address these public fractures now, before they become giant sinkholes.

With all due respect to New England, a certain witch-hunt mentality was out of place at last week’s Board budget hearing, as the video indicatesA march from City Hall to the old G. Fox department store building, housing District offices, followed on Monday.

Here are some key highlights from the May 3rd Board budget hearing (with video links) to illustrate how public comments reached emotional heights not seen in years:

Personal attacks were immediately ruled out of order (and reiterated at the 17:50 mark).  Notwithstanding the protocol prefaced by Board Chair Richard Wareing for the budget hearing – that comments had to be devoid of personal attacks, respectful without being vicious and focused on the budget – all hell broke loose.  Bulkeley High School Custodian Levey Kardulis stated he was never in favor of the superintendent’s appointment and opposed to Board Chair Richard Wareing, too.  After Mr. Kardulis maintained that the Hartford-resident superintendent was “not a part of this community,” Board Chair Wareing reminded him to confine his remarks to the budget. That failing, he had security remove him from the podium.  Cries of “Let him speak” and “This is unconstitutional” erupted.

Ominous Trends.  Hartford Parent University Executive Director Milly Arciniegas charged (at the 1:21:23 mark) that 50 percent of the Hartford staff related to student-centered learning are being cut.  “You cannot come to Hartford to learn how to be a superintendent,” she admonished Dr. Narvaez.  “Maybe in Alabama, maybe in some other place.”  She also questioned the District enrollment numbers as projected and played out.  “At the rate we are going, to sustain this reform, we aren’t going to have any kids,” she remarked.

Sexual Assault Ain’t No Game was emblazoned on the tee shirt of Lou Delgado, who, among other speakers, injected into the budget discussion the recent sexual text messaging incident involving former Hartford administrator Eddie Genao (at the 51:24 mark).  He also accused Board Chair Wareing of racism and took the position that, if the Board chair and superintendent did not speak Spanish, they were not qualified for their positions. The budget process did not go through the School Governance Council at Bulkeley and was therefore illegal, he also alleged.  “We think someone is stealing money,” he concluded.

Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, a number of personal attacks naming names brought applause at the Board budget hearing, while many good arguments about lost positions were overwhelmed by theatrics.  In this budget year especially, frustration is understandable; character assassination is out of order.

One very real concern was well represented in the plea from Burr School counselor Helene Morneau (at the 57:43 mark).  Introduced by one of her Eighth Graders, Ms. Morneau made the point that 7.5 HPS counselors are being cut despite their success in gaining graduation and college acceptance rates.  Another HPS counselor, Christine Ladd, warned that any plan to move the diminished group of counselors from school to school, “like pawns on a chess board,” will result in chaos, a very real concern.

What Needs to Happen

Some of what is causing angst in the community is a feeling that there is too little accountability at the top – no doubt related to the fact that the past HPS executive director for compliance, who was previously assistant superintendent for early literacy and parent engagement, school quality officer, and Hartford regional school choice officer (all since 2009), kept a job at HPS over this past decade only to be arrested on a felony charge of risk of injury or impairing the morals of a child last month, as reported in the Courant.  Just a few weeks back, there was an administrator’s apology in the same case.

These issues elevate into a criticism of the Board, whose job it is to make the community feel that things are under control, especially when there is a first-time superintendent in place.  And that’s where we focus our attention now as well.

The education reform ethos nationally has always been about finding superstar superintendents who can come in and fix everything, with the Board’s job being to mostly stay out of the way and work with the mayor to create the political cover needed for that superstar’s bold changes to gain approval.

Hartford’s reform was launched in that paradigm – but it ended years ago.  Now, more than ever, the Hartford Board of Education must remember that while the superintendent remains Hartford’s highest paid employee, she doesn’t have the social and political capital on her own to build bridges into the community – and those bridges matter just as much as the actual quality of strategies put in place.  Only so much community buy-in can be cultivated through district forums and task forces; Board members being out in the community speaking to the work of district employees matters so much more.

The Board of Education’s job is to steward the reform.  This means taking ownership of what’s happening in Hartford – good and bad – such that anyone listening knows exactly what the Board feels about a sexting incident … or a scandal at the school level regarding sticky dots – and what they should read into these sorts of incidents, regarding faith in leadership.

In the wake of cutting positions at struggling neighborhood schools, how can the Board provide reassurance to parents that their kids will achieve at the highest level?

In short, the challenge is to act as ONE TEAM and ensure the community understands that the Board shares the same impatience with the pace of change that the community is feeling.

Here’s one solution:  However the equity indicators and other measures of success look, more data must be relayed to the community about progress made against the HPS Strategic Plan – along with SBAC student performance data when they are released by the State this summer.  Information is the key to building trust in the community.  While a rise in student outcomes is needed to build confidence in leadership, for sure, what is more crucial to the community is seeing its leadership embrace good and bad outcomes publicly, with unbridled honesty.

The Bottom Line.  After all of the local governance problems of the past decades, from State takeover to leadership instability, to the pros and cons of the Sheff desegregation litigation (see the article on magnet schools), we should recognize that there is unfairness here.  With fiscal responsibility deferred for decades by past State, City, and Board leaders, it is amazing (but not surprising) that this inheritance would hit the fan just as Superintendent Narvaez and the Board seek to implement a well-considered strategic operating plan.

But that is where we find ourselves.

In large part, temper tantrums and legitimate arguments over the City and District budget cuts both remind us that ever-changing and highly nuanced facts – so difficult to convey in clear, succinct, and accessible language – need to be communicated in ways that help more people understand why decisions are made.  If not, a default assumption will be that the District doesn’t care about neighborhood schools.  Another default assumption would have it that the District is protecting its own.  Fighting the default assumptions is difficult, and we at Achieve Hartford! will continue to offer the District and Board our support as it relates to finding and refining communications strategies for making useful information available to the public.