Category: Education Matters
Councilwoman Glendowlyn Thames: Right Place at the Right Time

If front-line City, District and neighborhood experience add up to institutional knowledge, it would be difficult to find an individual with the depth and breadth that City Councilwoman Glendowlyn Thames brings to the table.  With firsthand awareness of citizens’ concerns and the past decade of Hartford school improvement efforts, her perspective is right on time as responses to the City’s budget crisis unfold.

Now chair of the City Council’s Operations, Management, Budget, and Government Accountability Committee, Councilwoman Thames worked for seven years in the administration of former Mayor Eddie Perez, serving as a community liaison and director of constituent services.  She also worked under former Hartford School Superintendent Christina Kishimoto as special assistant for major projects – as the strategic themes of Third Grade reading readiness, middle school redesign, and college and career readiness were being developed and implemented.

Currently, Ms. Thames is director of small business innovations for CT Innovations.

Today, she said in a recent interview, her priorities are “founded in the fact that we have a situation where we have neighborhood schools that are in dire straits.  How do we tackle that?  We just have to reflect and be honest with ourselves to ensure that we are providing equity across all of our schools, both neighborhood and magnet.”

In keeping with the Council’s role in funding schools, its role also extends to making policy for the City that helps families do the best for their children and the community.

The Council’s role is centered on partnership support, but it is important to emphasize alertness to the “consumers” of education – children and families, she maintained.  In her experience, she added, “What often gets lost is the instruction – the quality of instruction – and ensuring that school principals understand that they are the instructional leaders.”

Councilwoman Thames has a unique lens into the Hartford school improvement picture.  With all that is at stake in the fiscal crisis at hand, her perspective is invaluable.

Public Discussion of Budget Tsunami Begins

Those at the Hartford Board of Education meeting Tuesday evening learned that Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez is responding to the City’s budget crisis by eliminating one-third of her senior leadership team, continuing the recent trend toward downsizing the administration downtown with the goal of allocating more funds directly to schools.

Dr. Narvaez recalled her description of last year’s budget challenge as “a perfect storm,” given the District’s eight years of flat funding, decreased special funds and rising costs.  “This year, the situation is much worse, because we just have nowhere to go, while also facing a budget gap of approximately $20 million,” she reported.

Facing cuts that can no longer be avoided, Dr. Narvaez said Tuesday evening, she and members of her administration are working to push resources out to schools for fiscal 2017.  “We are doing what is possible to fund their priorities, to fund the work of the strategic plan, and to honor the work of equity to the greatest extent possible,” she said.

The reduction of her senior leadership team will be followed by departmental cuts so that the District will be better able to give back to schools, she said.  “No one will be immune.”

At Tuesday’s Board meeting, early fallout from the budget crisis began to emerge.  Community spokespeople objected to the proposed consolidation of Bulkeley High School’s Upper and Lower Schools under one principal, contending that communications with parents and involvement of the School Governance Council have been inadequate.  Other comments took a different tack, suggesting that having principals at each of the three academies at Hartford Public High School is wasteful.

Here is the excellent Hartford Courant recap of the meeting.

The video of the meeting is online here, with the superintendent’s budget comments at the 1:31:12 mark.

The Bottom Line.  The reform strategies launched under Dr. Adamowski and Mayor Perez beginning almost 10 years ago focused on small, theme-based schools.  That District-wide model is strained, to say the least, by the current financial situation.  Given this, Hartford must be prepared to not only make tough choices in consolidating schools, but even more importantly, to make tough decisions about the ways education is delivered to the children who have the most intense needs.  We must launch a conversation that extends from consolidation into quality, else we risk losing the war for equity before the first battle is over.

If It Looks Like a Crisis … and Quacks Like a Crisis … It’s a Crisis

The State of the City Address from Mayor Luke Bronin Monday evening was cut to the bone, just as the City and District budgets are about to be.  At a Hartford Board of Education retreat earlier that day, District and Board leaders grappled with the implications, emphasizing the importance of clear communications that encourage public knowledge and participation.

Parting company with characteristic State of the City language, the mayor reported that “the state of our city can and will be strong — if we face our challenges honestly, with clear vision and with an unflinching willingness to do the difficult things those challenges demand.”  In blunt detail, he reported, “as directly and as plainly as I can, that while our city is strong, the state of our financial condition is dire.  We are in a state of fiscal emergency.”

The City’s debt service cost is $10 million this year – and will jump to nearly $30 million next year and some $50 million by 2019.  “We’re like a household that’s taken out a second mortgage, maxed out the credit cards, and borrowed money from family and friends to keep up with the payments,” he said.  Cuts in services and layoffs are now unavoidable; new strategies are unfolding to address benefits and pension costs, as reported by the Courant.

The Devil Is in the Deficits

At the Board retreat earlier Monday, Chair Richard Wareing described the multi-level deficits projected for Fiscal 2017: $20 million for the District, $30 million for the City, and $900 million for the State.  “You don’t have to be Nostradamus” to figure out there’s a problem, he said.

The District is faced with restructuring, because many of its buildings have inadequate features or are run down, Board Finance and Audit Committee Chair Craig Stallings advised.  “I personally have said I want to close 25 schools,” he said, calling for a full Finance Committee hearing to apprise parents why principals are cutting seven to 10 positions per school.

Here are the text of the Mayor’s State of the City Address and last week’s Education Matters article related to the burgeoning budget issues.

The Bottom Line.  With layoffs coming at every level, we have to ask the question, how will Hartford’s strategy change to still meet the goals set forth by the Strategic Operating Plan?

While that question must be answered by management, the Board of Education and City Hall ultimately have to ensure management has what it needs to carry out its plan.  The buck stops with THEM, not the superintendent.

Also, the opportunity exists right now to make some bold changes as related to school consolidation and magnet school racial quotas.  As resources for neighborhood schools diminish during this fiscal crisis, Hartford should find ways to move more of its students into magnet school seats – even if the racial proportions at those are thrown a bit out of whack.  The time to have this conversation is now.

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