Over a hundred parents packed Geraldine Johnson School’s auditorium. It was so full the fire marshal was called. And, yet, despite their numbers, school board members didn’t bother to acknowledge their concerns. They even barred the majority of the parents from speaking.
Of the dozens of parents that signed up to comment, only fifteen got the chance, because the board passed a motion to restrict public comments to 30 minutes. A move that’s basically unheard of.
You’re probably wondering why on the earth would an elected school board be so dismissive to parents — their key constituents? The answer stems from what they came out to defend.
Most of the parents filling the room last Monday night came out in support of the Lighthouse, a city-run after and summer school program, that provides affordable care, tutoring, sports and art programing to about 2,200 kids across the city. It’s also long been a target of the board’s ire. Or, more specifically, of board members Maria Pereira’s and Sauda Baraka’s ire, who both have been open about their disdain for the city.
According to Bridgeport’s Youth Services Director Tammy Poppa, who runs the program, this isn’t the first time the school board has threatened to decrease their support. There’s been a yearly fight for funding, though this is the first time they’ve followed through.
Last month, without ever meeting with Poppa, the board voted to charge Lighthouse $500,000 in rent and fees. That means, without knowing the ramifications, they voted on a program that affects thousands of children. It turns out, according to Poppa, the cuts are likely to fall entirely on the Lighthouse summer program, which begins July 1st. That’s because after-school programs are tied to federal and state grants, meaning they can’t be cut.
“I have no intention of closing anything, but at the end of the day if I have to come up with $500,000 I have to figure out how I’m going to do that,” said Poppa during a phone interview, where she spoke of the possibility that around seven summer program sites might be closed this year.
Put in another way, If the school board follows through with their demands, which is all but certain at this point, hundreds of kids could be denied placement in affordable summer programs.
It’s obvious why parents are upset. There are limited options in Bridgeport for quality programing. On top of that, parents were informed only weeks before the July 1 start date that certain summer programs might be cancelled. This means that many kids will be left without a place to go.
What’s less obvious is why the board would make a move that could so deeply hurt the students and families of Bridgeport, and then, to add insult to injury, stonewall upset parents.
It’s All About Power
The Lighthouse has a long history in Bridgeport. Originally established in 1993, after a series of violent gang-related shootings rocked the city. During his first stint as mayor, Joseph Ganim partnered with then-superintendent James Connelly and community groups to develop a program that would help curb the violence in the streets.
The city’s violent crime rate went down dramatically, partially due to increased gang-raids, but according to Poppa, the police chief at the time also credits the Lighthouse. Moreover, it’s seen success beyond that. According to a Yale study, the program’s tutoring and academic services helped increase student achievement.
Even though Lighthouse has been a positive force in the community for over two decades, Pereira and others don’t see it that way. They’re not concerned with the results, they’re concerned with who’s in control. Really, It’s all about power.
Right now, the bulk Lighthouse’s funding comes from city, which contributions about $1.5 million, according to Poppa. They also take in about $800,000 from parent fees and make up the rest with state and federal grants. The school board’s only contribution is the use of their buildings and associated facilities costs. Though the funding is split, the city manages the program in conjunction with local non-profit organizations. This seems to be why they’re being targeted.
Certain board members have been obsessed with cutting ties with the city. They’ve made it clear they don’t want the city involved in education what so ever. That’s why back when Baraka was board chair they tried to undo the successful merger between the Police Department and Board of Education Security. They were only halted when outraged parents and security staff came out en masse to oppose the plan.
Perhaps board members were trying to halt a similar display?
While Pereira and her allies claim that charging the Lighthouse is just about the board “tightening their belt,” it’s suspect that they refused to listen parent concerns, refused to discuss the issue in public again, and even refused to work with program leadership.
At Monday’s meeting Poppa even offered to work with the board to come up with a solution and agreed to pay some of the fees, but instead of discussing the matter, the item was tabled. It was clear that they already made up their minds.
According to the Bridgeport Board of Education’s Code of Ethics, board members are supposed to “make the well being of students the fundamental goal of all decision-making and action.” In other words, they have a duty to put politics aside, and think first of how their decisions will affect Bridgeport students.
The board has failed to do this and now the students and families who rely on the Lighthouse have become collateral damage in certain board members’ personal war against the city.
This war has gone too far.
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