Hamden students will start school at the same time as last year.
After two months of hand wringing and debate concerning how to rearrange student busing schedules in a last-minute move to stay within the lines of a level budget, the Board of Education voted Tuesday night to keep school start and dismissal times the same as last year — in hopes that the town will indeed steer extra funding their way.
That anti-climactic answer to questions about dismissal times was decided in a 6 to 3 vote, after debate in which Board of Education officials bashed the Legislative Council for flat-funding them in this year’s budget season — and then placed their trust in a soft promise from council leadership earlier this week to transfer almost $600,000 towards Hamden schools in August to cover rising transportation costs.
BOE President Melissa Kaplan told Tuesday’s audience that she had met earlier this week with Dominique Baez, the council president, and Justin Farmer, the council majority leader, alongside the mayor’s office to discuss the school system’s budgetary limitations.
Baez and Farmer, both of whom originally voted alongside several other council members to level-fund the school district in the middle of spiking costs related to inflation, pandemic-imposed achievement gaps, and growing contractual obligations, reportedly agreed to ask the council to take another vote considering that decision in an August first meeting.
“Leaders assured they will vote in favor of funding the money we originally asked for in our budget,” Kaplan said. “It’s a plan, but it’s really a huge leap of faith.”
That means that if the council does not actually vote in favor of granting Hamden schools an extra $580,000, the district will have to drop down from 72 to 67 buses operating each day. That would result in delayed classroom arrivals and late returns home following a year of driver shortages and inconsistencies in busing services.
“All the options I think are bad options,” Board of Education member Gary Walsh, who voted against taking more money from the council, said Tuesday. He, like every other board member, expressed distaste about the process through which the council decided to reconsider the board’s financial needs.
“I really have mixed feelings, I’m very upset,” said BOE member David Asberry, who has consistently called out the council for their decision to flat-fund the board. He called the council’s retroactive offer to hold a second vote a “side deals.”
“That’s slick stuff. That’s slick,” he repeated.
The previously accepted alternative to Hamden’s current busing plan, embedded in the district budget that board members adopted in June, was to restructure school start and end times in order to widen the gap between when buses arrived at and departed elementary, middle and high schools. Hamden Schools’ Chief Operating Officer Tom Ariola suggested such a move could save the district nearly as much money as they were originally denied by the council — about $600,000 — by cutting down on the number of buses called in on a daily basis to pick up the slack when other drivers were inevitably late given the district’s inherently inefficient and cramped busing system.
Tuesday night’s virtual meeting began with a presentation by Superintendent Jody Goeler on the results of a survey sent out by the board to determine the broader community’s preferences regarding bus schedules.
That survey — which you can read more about here — was distributed to parents, students and teachers after many spoke out in public hearings about how the district’s original proposal. The original proposal specifically included starting and ending elementary school classes up to 45 minutes later, would negatively impact families. Parents were particularly concerned about costs related to extended daycare hours or missed work.
The majority of survey respondents — 29 percent, or 703 out of 2,928 people — said they wanted the Board of Education to maintain the same busing schedule as in years past, but find the money to keep service similarly consistent.
Given that more funding seemed to be an impossibility — as both the board and town council solidified their budgets months back — another phrasing of a similar option on the survey seemed more realistic: “Keep the same system with no additional funds, resulting in fewer buses and even less reliable service.”
But right after Goeler announced those survey results, BOE President Kaplan revealed other news: She had met with council leadership, who had agreed to ask for a second council vote to take $580,000 out of the proceeds from a recent $15 million school sale to fund busing — if the board voted in favor of keeping the same system over adopting a new bus schedule.
Though the majority voted in favor of pursuing that plan, nobody was happy about how it came about.
“It’s a big problem, it’s a red flag,” Walter Morton asserted. “It’s definitely not the norm.”
Morton described the stress put on the board to talk with vendors and pitch new plans, and, more importantly, the stress caused to families by last minute back and forth about scheduling.
“Then in the 11th hour, they come around,” Morton interpreted of the council’s actions. “I have a tough time finding it in myself to thank them for something they should’ve done in the first place… In my opinion, they really dropped the ball.”
“I’m happy to hear there’s a strong possibility the council will support” the board’s financial realities, BOE representative Siobhan Carter-David reflected. “We’re here to serve the families of Hamden — not to shortchange them based on poor decision making by the town.”
Carter-David offered the most optimistic reading of the situation. Most publicly read the council’s contingency as a means of control.
“These kinds of behaviors are inappropriate at best,” BOE Secretary Reuel Parks pitched in, and “illegal” at worst. “We shouldn’t be operating this way.” The council is supposed to decide on a lump sum to give to their schools — which the Board of Education gets to allot.
“I have a problem with this,” asserted Austin Cesare, a board member who previously served on the council. “It’s a back door approach…I smell a rat.”
He offered a future hypothetical: What if the council decided down the road, “we really don’t like the curriculum the Hamden board’s delivering — let’s flat-fund them again”?
Cesare, who voted against taking the money, alongside the board’s other two Republicans, said the vote meant that the BOE “has now ceded our independence. Every time the council doesn’t like something we do, they’ll flat-fund us and make us beg for forgiveness.”
David Asberry once again accused the council of “playing games.”
“If these guys’ games continue, then vote them out. Period. Vote them out,” he repeated.
“What brings me joy is that we have a board that’s speaking up — a board that’s not gonna take it. And we have a board that’s gonna bite.”
Kaplan put out a public plea to the council to avoid flat-funding the board again next year — which would be the third time Hamden has level-funded their schools since 2020.
“This decision is all due to the short funding of our budget by $600,000,” she said. “This is the second time the BOE has been flat-funded during a global pandemic when our needs have never been higher.”
the BOE originally requested about $94 million from the town to cover expenses for the upcoming school year. Mayor Lauren Garrett brought that figure down to $92 million in her proposed town budget before passing the document on to the Legislative Council for edits. The council ultimately decided across party lines — with four council Democrats joining forces with all three Republicans — to save money by level-funding the BOEfinalizing the town’s contributions to the school system once again at $91.4.
“When things need to be cut, it’s always an issue of equity,” she said. This decision put “so much unnecessary stress on our families, on our communities… it is a situation that should never have been placed on our community.”
“Please support us so we don’t have to go through this excruciating exercise every single year. Too many lives depend on the services our school system provides.”
While the Board of Education took turns criticizing the Legislative Council, perhaps to an unprecedented degree, others noted the Board’s need to do better as well.
Student Rep. Ishnan Khan reported that as she interviewed students and parents in hopes of reaping feedback about busing, the “conclusion” she reached was “bigger than discussing school start times — it’s about the Board of Education’s level of transparency.”
Her co-representative, Mark Hu, said that those he spoke to described the survey as “biased, lengthy and ineffective.”
For example, the bus schedule change that received the second most support, with backing from 23 percent of survey participants, was to indeed widen the gap between school start times, but pick up elementary students first rather than last, then Hamden High schoolers second, and Hamden Middle School third.
However, Ariola claimed Tuesday that Hamden’s contracted bus company, First Student, determined the plan “not to be feasible.” He said that because more high schoolers ride the bus than younger students and come from all parts of town, more bus drivers are needed to transport them to class. And because more bus drivers are available earlier in the morning, Hamden High Schoolers must go to school earlier in the morning.
Hu and Khan said that technicalities, such as that, were confusing to the public, who felt poorly informed about the nuanced implications of any busing changes.
“We’re moving towards an innovative future,” Hu said. “We need effective messaging to make sure everyone’s on the same page.”
Board of Education member Mariam Khan agreed with the student reps.
She argued that the board should actually be doing more brainstorming to better parent and student experiences — including potentially changing start times — but not in a last-minute, reactive fashion.
“We need focus groups and school visits,” she said.
Siobhan Carter-David and herself organized a lunch forum with the community to discuss changing schedules, Khan said, and found that “folks are not adverse to creativity and ambition.”
there are “merits” to the idea, like potentially standardizing elementary school start times are letting high school students sleep in later, Khan reflected.
“If we feel we need to weigh those possibilities,” she added, “start that data analysis now!”
Nora Grace-Flood’s reporting is supported in part by a grant from Report for America.