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Doing Justice … to Hartford’s Examination of Justice

When Dr. Raygine DiAquoi and Dr. Philip Lee keynoted the Hartford schools’ March 19th conversation on race, racism, and equity, some 700 parents and community reps filled the Bulkeley High School auditorium.  The room grew silent fast, however, when Dr. DiAquoi advised attendees that the practice of unequal funding is a practice of racism – and Dr. Lee cited the differences between what is legal and what is just.  The audience stayed.

In breakout groups, parents, educators, and community representatives looked through the local lens at the keynoters’ commentaries, considering that that there is no biological basis for race; that the same talk upon the death of Travon Martin took place more than 100 years ago in the Jim Crow era; and that it took centuries of intentional creation of law and policy to lead to today’s circumstances.

On the subject of cultural competence, as one student put it, in the context of having teachers not of his race, when his utilities were shut off, he could not tell his teachers.  “I can’t do it, because it just doesn’t feel right,” he said.  But teachers need training to understand that students don’t come to school to wreak havoc, he said.  “Students have things at home that get to them, whether it be abuse or the bills.”

One West Indian American parent put it this way: Latino parents approach him at arms’ length, a not-so subtle sign of racism.

Here are the video highlights of the March 19 conversation on “Race, Racism and Equity”.

“It’s really easy for us to say, ‘Why even try any more,’” Dr. Lee told the crowd.  “If you love the children, you do not have the luxury to give up.”  To reinforce the point, he quoted Dr. Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”  Here is his March 19 presentation.

The Bottom Line.  The March 19 listeners wrestled with how to define and confront racism.  They met in large and small groups for a half day on some of the most serious questions our country and city faces.  In considering how to oppose those who maintain and reinforce a racial hierarchy, they received useful guidance from Dr. DiAquoi: It is not enough to be a non-racist; one needs to have an anti-racist stance, taking what you know and speaking truth to power.

Kudos to the Hartford Public Schools and Board of Education for taking on this sensitive and fundamental topic – and for risking thoughtful interchanges.  As the potential for a follow-up conversation is being discussed, the audience feedback – and what people put down on their “commitment cards” as ways to fulfill their goals – will be golden.  As well, it will be fascinating to see what the high school video documentarians from the Journalism and Media Magnet Academy, with CPBN support, come up with.  Overcoming institutional racism requires more than 700 on a Saturday morning … but what a great start.

Where Does Hartford Begin, with School Consolidation?

Hartford Public Schools facilities analyses, as yet unreported (except verbally in Board of Education discussions), foresee costly immediate repairs necessary at 10 schools in poor condition.  Long-term maintenance costs go into the stratosphere.  By the guideline that schools need some 350 students to be sustainable, 14 last week were not – with seven others on the borderline.  Factoring in the state of the 49 physical structures, it is obvious that smart school consolidation is upon us.

At a Board of Education School Choice and Facilities Committee meeting March 22nd:

  • Board Chair Richard Wareing and Vice Chair Jose Colon-Rivas made plans for a public workshop in April, centering on the state of Hartford school facilities;
  • School-by-school enrollment data as of last week showed several North End schools had fewer than 350 students: Clark (247); Culinary Arts Academy at Weaver (272); High School, Inc. (226); Journalism and Media Academy Magnet (177); and Wish Museum School (305).
  • At a meeting earlier this week, the Blue Hills Civic Association weighed the trade-offs between proceeding with the Weaver High School renovation on Granby Street; undertaking the planned renovation at the Martin Luther King School (the original Weaver building); and tearing down and rebuilding the environmentally uninhabitable Clark School.  See today’s Courant article for discussions of how one or more of those projects may no longer be feasible in the current State and City budget crisis.

Board Chair Wareing, looking at the number of small-enrollment schools, has said it is unlikely that the District can continue without consolidation.

Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez has launched an “Equity 2020 Advisory Committee,” comprising parents, teachers, principals, and community leaders.  Its focus will be to make recommendations to the Board, connecting facilities, geography, academic alignment, and school choice considerations to maximize resources and opportunities for children.

“In our current context, I see an opportunity to address enrollment, facilities and capacity challenges,” said Dr. Narvaez. “We will not be able to achieve or invest in everything that is articulated in the strategic operating plan during this budget cycle. However, my expectation is that even in the midst of a very challenging budget scenario, we will take major steps forward in executing our goals and to significantly increase the quality of education across all schools.”

The committee will hold its first meeting Monday; Dr. Narvaez plans to present a two-year budget April 19th.

The Bottom Line.  As objectionable as it may appear in many neighborhood school communities, consolidation may be the best, if not the only, way to improve students’ educational opportunities given the State and City budget deficits and declining enrollment in Hartford.  We have to see consolidation as providing not only the savings that come from operating fewer school buildings, but also ensuring better targeting of nonprofit resources to children in that smaller complement of schools.

Scary Budget Situation Begs for a Moratorium on Scare Tactics

Mayor Luke Bronin’s emergency call Monday, for a financial oversight commission unique to Hartford, put this year’s excruciating cost-cutting choices into clear relief, fractured the City Council, and mobilized opposition forces.  The inevitability of significant layoffs and school consolidation in Hartford’s schools is scary enough, however, without exaggerated scare tactics.

And yet unrestrained hype too often did set the tone Monday at the Legislative Office Building hearing on the proposed Hartford Financial Sustainability Commission, S.B. 464.

Mayor Bronin was accused of ignoring historic collaborations with unions and seeking either to end collective bargaining or become its overseer, disempower the City Council (and democracy), become the czar of Hartford, and engage in political theater at Hartford’s expense, on his way to becoming governor.  “He wants to be the dominion maker of everything,” according to Hartford Police Union President Richard “Rick” Holton.

With this level of distraction in the midst of a fiscal crisis, is there any wonder why we have one?  When pressed, the same witnesses Monday acknowledged that the mayor has met with union presidents as a group – and some more than once (although he has not negotiated).  According to many union allies who popped up from all over the state, the mayor is exaggerating Hartford’s problem.

One Hartford cop, also a selectman in another town for about a decade, actually re-did the math and found the City’s situation to be not so bad.  Others doubted deficit projections because they have risen under iterative analyses.  The MetroHartford Alliance weighed in as well, here.

NBC CT yesterday reported that some 200 positions may be cut in the District due to deficits, as the Courant detailed here.

Here’s a rundown on the emergent issues, taking into account Mayor Bronin’s points of emphasis:

  •  After checking further, the FY 17 deficit is not the originally estimated $30 million, but now projected to be $48.5 million; unaddressed, the mayor said, “maybe slowly, maybe quickly, but surely,” the deficits will kill the city of Hartford.  As he put it, “There’s a limit to how much you can cut when you are already providing basic services.”
  •  The bill was not, as alleged, disrespectfully advanced at the last minute without consultation, but simply had to meet the General Assembly’s short-session deadline;
  • The mayor will submit his budget to Council April 18th (to be followed by a rescheduled Hartford Board of Education workshop April 19th);
  •  He should probably be asking the State for an additional $60 million to $70 million, the mayor said, given the quiet deficit of payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) collections on tax-exempt State properties.  These losses are compounded by the extraordinary region-wide services provided in Hartford by untaxed nonprofits;
  •  Instead of a 74 mill rate, if Hartford had the lower 45 mill rate comparable in the region, its deficit would balloon to $100 million; and
  • Hartford’s fate is bound to have ripple effects region-wide (in home sales and unemployment numbers, etc.).

The after-effects could be even worse if businesses see the current fiscal crisis as cause to move out of the city or state.

What Is the Financial Sustainability Commission?

At a Rawson School Town Hall last Thursday, the mayor went over the make-up of the proposed nine-member Hartford Financial Sustainability Commission (to comprise himself, two City Council members, the City Treasurer, two members appointed by City Council [labor and small business reps], two members appointed by the mayor [a taxpayer and a major taxpayer], and one State representative).

The commission, he maintained, would not take power away from City Council, but rather enhance it, as it would supplant arbitration panels that now decide contracts and benefits without regard for local fiscal consequences.  With $100 million in annually growing, untouchable City commitments – and taking into account the lackadaisical pace of traditional arbitration – it is a reasonable measure in Hartford’s crisis.

The Sustainability Commission legislation, the mayor said, is modeled after what was done in Waterbury as to providing problem-solving tools, but differs, in that it maintains City authority.  “We didn’t just want to hand over the keys,” he said.

Pressed Monday at the LOB to say what would happen to Hartford absent the commission, Mayor Bronin was clear.  “We don’t necessarily have the ability to make these changes ourselves,” he said.  “We would be rolling the dice at a time when every dollar counts and we are on the brink.”

The Bottom Line.  There are many dimensions to the Fiscal 2017 fiscal crisis, but we can predict what it will mean for the schools … regardless of whether there is a sustainability commission or the city goes into bankruptcy.

Half of the City budget goes to Hartford Public Schools.  The funding level has already been flat for eight years – and a decrease is likely.

Neighborhood schools, with the neediest students, low performing for a long time, require even greater targeted support, not less.  Cuts being discussed now could have negative ramifications for the District’s strategic acceleration agenda for a long time.

With layoffs now under way at central office and fast coming to the schools, one must question whether our already strapped District is now about to rocket down a slippery slope, especially if the City cannot match itsState-required minimum budget requirement (MBR) from past years – and hence put vital State funding on the chopping block, too.

Fiscal viability for Hartford’s capital city is the foundation on which our children’s – and the State’s – economic futures rest.  In the present and projected fiscal environments, the overriding special interests on the table must lean not toward adults, but yield to preserving educational opportunities for children, especially those most disadvantaged.

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