Bridgeport parents to state education board: ‘Help! We are in crisis!’

A lengthy agenda was awaiting action by the State Board of Education Wednesday. But first came the pleas of two Bridgeport parents beseeching it to do something about the plight of their children’s schools.

They were each given three minutes.

Jessica Martinez started by describing the staffing cuts at the state’s largest and most impoverished districts, where fewer than one in four students are reading at grade level.

Board members listen to Chaila Robinson.

“We have lost our home-to-school coordinators,” she said.

She went on to list cuts of math and literacy coaches and support staff for disabled students, and closure of the parent center.

“So I am discouraged… We need to be better at holding boards of education accountable,” she continued. “I know we have autonomy, but there needs to be some type of oversight.”

Chaila Robinson’s child is autistic. Holding back tears, she explained that there is no longer a paraprofessional to help her child at school.

“Our budget keeps getting cut. What that is telling our children is that you are not good enough,” she told the state board. “We are only opening the floodgates for failure.”

The two parents are running for the local school board, hoping to improve things. Martinez’s son is also the named plaintiff in a federal lawsuit over educational opportunity in Connecticut.

And then, Gwen Samuel, leader of the Connecticut Parents’ Union, asked the state board to step up.

“We are in a crisis. So this is not business as usual,” said Samuel, a parent with children in Meriden schools. “It is the state’s responsibility that Bridgeport is doing what it is supposed to be doing… I am asking you to look into Bridgeport.”

The state board members did not immediately respond to the parents’ comments and typically don’t during the public-comment portion of meetings.

State education officials have played a delicate balancing act in their involvement in Bridgeport. The department intervened in four struggling schools in the city and funneled some additional money to the district in the past, helping the district cover escalating costs as well as providing some additional supports. But in recent years, as the state has faced budget deficits, the district’s state aid has been reduced.

Requests by the previous superintendent for state help with the rancorous local school board were denied last year.

State involvement in Bridgeport has been and continues to be a sore spot for the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. During his first year in office, his education department and the State Board of Education kicked out the locally elected board and recruited a nationally prominent but controversial superintendent to head the troubled district. But the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled his administration had missed a critical step required by law before a takeover: providing training to the board so it has an opportunity to improve.

In 2013, the state department rejected a request to intervene in Bridgeport. A complaint from the local teachers’ union in 2013 alleged that the superintendent at the time was shutting out teachers and parents by limiting the role of School Governance Councils in making budgetary, hiring and strategic decisions for the 21,000-student district. In dismissing the request to intervene, the education department wrote to the leader of the Bridgeport Education Association, “First, you must show that you have exhausted your remedies at the local level.”

But a Superior Court judge last September found the state’s efforts haven’t been enough and ordered major changes in how the state funds and gets involved in impoverished school districts. The state Supreme Court will hear that case later this month.

Gov. Malloy has said he agrees with much of the Superior Court judge’s decision and has been pushing the legislature to redistribute existing state education aid to the state’s worst-off districts.

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