A public forum at Black Rock School.

On Tuesday, Feb. 5, five members of the Bridgeport Board of Education voted to cancel a series of public Community Forums. These forums, organized by the Board and Bridgeport Public Schools, were meant to address the financial distress facing our school district and how parents, families, educators, administration, community members, and local elected officials can be part of a solution.

When asked in an email why they voted to cancel these forums, Chairman John Weldon responded that “Over recent weeks some Board members expressed concern to me with respect to the consistency of the message [and] certain undertones of negativity and hostility toward the Mayor, the City Council and even the Superintendent herself.”

First, it is unreasonable to assume that parents, families, educators, and school communities would not express frustration and negativity, given the current circumstances surrounding our public schools. We are a community full of people with vision, who cannot act upon our deepest desires to build a better future for our children because money and resources are scarce. According to Board Member Ben Walker, who voted to keep the Community Forums, Bridgeport Public Schools has “seen nearly $38 million in budget cuts in the last 3 years [and] without intervention, we will be forced to cut another $16 million next year!”

Second, we live in an incredibly well-resourced state! This is not just a city issue, it is a statewide issue. And Bridgeport can be a leader in a movement for education equity, but doing so requires intentional and courageous organizing on the part of our elected and civic leaders. When Dr. Aresta Johnson first brought these Community Forums to our attention, we were heartened because it seemed the school district was ready, willing, and able to embody that role.

Finally, elected officials should never be in the habit of shutting down public space. We cannot be afraid to face our deepest problems, our greatest sufferings, together and in the public arena. Only when we examine them collectively, shine a bright light, and let all voices be heard does the path forward become clear. Public space is messy for that very reason. And it takes strong leadership to hold such an inclusive space for all people, not just the people who agree with you politically.

These five members of the Board of Education hold power and they must use that power for good. Rather than close public space – space that parents and scholars across the city were counting on – board members can use their power to assist Dr. Johnson, administrators, educators, and community leaders on strengthening the purpose and execution of these forums. We urge Mr. Weldon and his colleagues to reconsider, and reinstate the Community Forums before the 2019 budget season ends in May.

Callie Gale Heilmann is a Bridgeport Public School parent and President of Bridgeport Generation Now. The Rev. Cass Shaw is President of The Council Of Churches of Greater Bridgeport.  

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