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A ‘Missed Opportunity’: Mayor Intervenes in School Districts’ Dispute Over Reimbursements

July 4, 2024
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New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker had strong words for the Woodbridge Board of Education when he, along with two representatives of the New Haven School District, personally addressed the Woodbridge board at its February 27 meeting to chide them over their decision back in January not to offer two Kindergarten slots to children from New Haven as part of the Open Choice Program.  He asked the board to reconsider that decision.

Due to snow the evening of the meeting, it was held virtually.

In a carefully worded statement that he read in order to meet the board’s three-minute public comment policy, Elicker called it a missed opportunity to show “that you care about ending racial and ethnic isolation, that you are committed to ending segregation and want to work together with neighboring towns on this goal.  You’ve done the opposite with your choice, and I ask you to reconsider,” he said.

Open Choice is a state-wide program that allows urban students to attend public schools in nearby suburban towns.  The Woodbridge school district has been participating for many years, and is currently offering 18 slots to New Haven students.  Later this year, two sixth graders enrolled in the program will graduate, opening two slots for incoming kindergarteners.  But this year, the board decided to not offer those slots, essentially cutting back on the number of participating students.

At the root of the disagreement is how the home district reimburses the host district, especially when it comes to special education services rendered.  Donna Coonan, the director of Finance and Operations in Woodbridge, informed the board that the New Haven District had reimbursed Woodbridge for transportation and other special services, yet it had not paid for further interventions it had provided.  Last year, the Woodbridge district billed New Haven for $265,000, but received only $131,000.

She said she found out that while New Haven does not pay the host districts for special services, the Hartford school district does.

Tyfany Jackson, her counterpart in the New Haven school district, pointed out that they have met with Woodbridge officials in the past to work it out.  “To be stating that New Haven is not paying for its special ed students, that information is grossly inaccurate,” she said.  “We have and continue to pay for reasonable cost.”

Jackson also called out the Woodbridge district for discrimination, saying, “We cannot preclude students with disabilities,” from entering the lottery for the Open Choice slots.  “It is unfair to preclude (students) simply because of their disabilities.”

Like Mayor Elicker before her, the New Haven Magnet school administrator, Michele Bonanno, pointed out that not only do the suburban districts accept students from New Haven, but the city also accepts some 2,650 suburban students into its public schools, ten of whom live in Woodbridge.

She said the lottery for the Open Choice program is administered by ACES (Area Cooperative Educational Services), and the city has no bearing on who gets in.  Besides which, admission for kindergarten in many cases would be prior to them being identified for special services, she said.

“It is appalling to me that Woodbridge would withdraw participation in a program that is rooted in Brown v Board of Education,” she said, referring to the 1954 US Supreme Court decision that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.  “We believe in equitable access for all students, regardless of their race, educational designation or zip code.”

As is customary, the local board did not engage in a conversation with those addressing an issue during public comment.  Even so, School Supt. Vonda Tencza did touch on the subject in her report, saying that this was a funding issue that did not reflect on the district’s commitment to the open choice mission.

“An ideal resolution would be for the State Department of Education to provide clarification and guidance of how this law should be followed, so that districts…are not debating financing and competing for funds,” she said.  She said she participated in a meeting on February 14 with representatives from the State Department of Education, and its chief of the Bureau of Special Education agreed to serve as an intermediary to help identify a resolution.

The issue comes at a delicate time for the town, as it faces a lawsuit by The Open Communities Trust, and a group of housing advocates who charge that the town’s zoning regulations violate not only the state’s Fair Housing Act, but also the anti-segregation clause of the State Constitution.  The case was recently ordered transferred from New Haven Superior Court to the Hartford Judicial District.

Sheila McCreven, currently a member of the Board of Selectmen who has previously served on both the Amity and the Woodbridge Boards of Education, also wrote a letter to the board to request that it reconsider its decision about the two Kindergarten slots. 

“It is my belief that the Town of Woodbridge’s long history of continuous participation in this program represents an important contribution to efforts to reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation in our public schools,” she wrote.  “It also makes possible (for the participating students) the subsequent 6 years of education at the middle and high schools of the Amity Regional School District.  I believe strongly that this participation benefits not just the Project Open Choice students and their families, but significantly enriches the education of all students in both the Woodbridge and Amity system.  I would like to see participation continue uninterrupted.”

Woodbridge Board of Education members by and large expressed their support for the program.  “I would like us to keep the door open,” said Erin Williamson, the only dissenting vote against reducing slots.  “It’s not that we are opposed to the program, opposed to the concept – it’s that they are not meeting their obligations that they agreed to under this program.”

Brooke Hopkins had a different view.  The program’s goal was to increase diversity, she said, “but our community is diverse now.”  By sending mostly special Education students, it does not teach Woodbridge children about diversity.  The only message we send is that kids from New Haven are special ed kids.”

DEI Committee:  Not related to the discussion about Open Choice, School Principal Analisa Sherman presented the board later in the meeting with information about the work of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.  About 65.3% of students are white, she said, 15% are Asian and 7.8 Hispanic/Latino.  93% of the educators are white.  From an economic perspective, 12.4 qualify for reduced price lunches.  Thirty-six students identify as multi-language learners, with 15 languages represented in the larger school community, ranging from Arabic to Urdu.

Sherman gave the board a brief overview in how DEI has inspired multiple initiatives in the school, including those to inspire teachers through professional development, attempts at diversifying staff.  She talked about embedding diversity into their daily conversation; teaching music and art and providing books in the classrooms as well as the library that provide a new perspective.

Asked how the school teaches children how to navigate differences in perspective, Sherman said, “we teach having disagreements and talking through them all the time.  It’s happening organically throughout the day.”

This is an opinion not necessarily endorsed by the Woodbridge Town News.

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