A faceoff is brewing tonight between parents organized by school officials to rally for public education, and tax-weary watchdogs looking to cut the city budget.
The showdown is set to take place at City Hall, where aldermen will convene at 6:30 p.m. for a final public hearing on the mayor’s proposed $476 million budget for the upcoming year. (If you’re not attending the hearing, you can follow it and comment on it as it happens, right here. The Independent plans to live-blog the event.)
At 6 p.m., parents and school officials are holding a rally at City Hall to protect the Board of Education’s portion of that budget, which is $176 million.
The schools rally comes in response to a call from the citizen budget watchdog group New Haven CAN, which is asking aldermen to cut spending in each city department by 10 percent. School officials and parent groups have been sending out flyers, letters, and emails urging parents and their children to turn out tonight to protect education funding. The messages warn that a 10 percent cut would blow a $17.6 million hole in the schools budget, forcing layoffs and hampering the chances for the city’s nationally recognized school reform drive.
“Tell the Board of Aldermen to SAY NO TO A $17.6 MILLION CUT TO EDUCATION,” declares one flyer circulated among the schools. “Don’t turn your back on our students!”
The flyer warns of the following consequences of a $17.6 million cut: “NO SCHOOL CHANGE INITIATIVE; Larger Class Sizes; Fewer teachers and para[professional]s; Closing schools; Cuts to Afterschool Programming.”
The flyer was sent out via email to school principals and parent leaders of the citywide Parent Teacher Organization. The school system also posted the “call to action” on a long dormant school change Facebook page.
The public information campaign is a joint venture of school officials and the citywide PTO, said Laoise King, the school system’s chief of external affairs. She said she emailed the flyers to the schools, where the flyers were printed out and sent home in students’ bookbags or with report cards.
NHCAN’s Jeffrey Kerekes (pictured) called the flyers “propaganda.” He accused the school system of “fearmongering” and pitting New Haveners against each other instead of working together to find ways to spend money efficiently.
“The Mayor is clearly attempting to pit families with school-age kids against other residents, who simply say we cannot afford exponentially increasing property taxes,” he said. Many of the taxpayers fighting the mayor’s budget have kids in the public school system, he said.
“How many more times can the Administration try this triangulation strategy of setting community groups against each other so as to avoid making tough decisions?” Kerekes asked in an open letter on the group’s website. He said the mayor tried that tactic last year, when closing senior centers and cutting library hours “became the focus of community discussion in a $600 million plus budget.” The year before that, he spurred community groups to support his budget by suggesting Stetson Library might have to be closed otherwise.
“When citizens ask their elected leaders to consider change, they demonize them,” Kerekes wrote.
Kerekes said his group is not “singling out” the Board of Education when it calls for a 10 percent cut across the board. NHCAN has not detailed specific cuts to the BOE budget. “In fact,” Kerekes noted, “the BOE budget was passed with ZERO public input.”
“It is an insult to the intellect of the voters to engage in such diversionary and us versus them tactics,” Kerekes wrote. “NHCAN is all for effective spending on Education with accountability and performance based budgeting. It dodges intelligent debate to request citizen input and then attempts to use good faith inputs from groups such as ours to demonize those offering inputs.”
King (pictured) said the district isn’t trying to demonize anyone.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re pitting parents against New Haven CAN,” she said. “We’re defending and standing up for our budget.”
“We have a lot at stake,” King said.
A 10 percent cut would mean laying off 300 teachers, she said. “We’d have to dramatically cut back on arts and music, after-school programs, and paraprofessionals.” And most important, she said, the district would not be able to carry through its school reform goals, including working to boost scores with the seven pilot schools.
“We absolutely are not going to be able to do it if we take a 10 percent cut,” she said. “It’s going to be a major roadblock to being able to look forward to school change.”
She added that the school board took a zero-percent increase last year, and in past years, contractually required expenses have been rising faster than the budget has increased.
King said parents became active on this issue after Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. presented his budget at a meeting of the citywide PTO on April 1. He told them that NHCAN wants to see 10 percent cuts across the board. She said a group of parents decided to rally other parents to protect the budget.
In past budget presentations, the mayor has repeatedly couched any attempt to decrease the budget—including getting rid of his $50 million parking meter monetization deal—as an impediment to school change.
Mary Rosario, co-leader of the citywide PTO, is part of a handful of parents who took the lead in organizing the defense of the budget.
She sent out an email on Friday to the nearly 100 members of the citywide PTO. She asked them to attend tonight’s rally, pass out flyers, speak at the public hearing, and “Bring Signs! (We Want School Change; Save our Schools; Don’t Cut Our Schools, or whatever creative slogan you can think of).” She attached the above-mentioned flyer and this budget fact sheet.
Meanwhile, budget watchdogs continued their own a last-minute push to get people out to the hearing.
In a Facebook message Tuesday, Rebecca Turcio geared her rallying call toward struggling taxpayers.
“Want to know we are fighting so hard? Because this is just the start of this,” she wrote, linking to an Independent report that the city initiated foreclosure on 99 homes in the past year.
“Are you or do you know anyone that is barely paying [their] rents or mortgages?” she asked.
“THIS IS THE LAST meeting for your voice to be heard!,” reads a note on that page. “We need everyone to come to this with friends and family and [their] community! If we do not make a stand, the budget may go through as is. If you can afford the extra Property tax or rent increase then you do not need to come. But if you can not afford it YOU MUST MAKE THIS FINAL STAND!”
In following the education budget crisis in Danbury, over the last couple of months, there has been a significant increase in terms of the number of residents in opposition to the board's proposals. If organizing efforts in New Haven are any indication of things to come, then expect the number of residents in opposition to teacher layoffs and program cuts to increase.