Waterbury students are being denied access to the resources that would increase their chances of succeeding and as an advocate for the community I love it is my responsibility to call out those responsible. Mayor Neil O’Leary, Superintendent Verna D. Ruffin, and the Waterbury Board of Education (WBoE) are at fault and easiest to blame. However, there are others who have failed to protect the basic educational rights of Waterbury’s students, especially Black and Brown students.
Despite assurances from State Department of Education (SDE) officials Irene Parisi and Desi Nesmith, the Waterbury American Rescue Plan funding was conditionally approved on March 11th, without any communication from the SDE. Through this conditional approval we know our advocacy and organizing is working. However, this conditional approval will still allow the City of Waterbury to use an unprecedented amount of funding for building maintenance and property improvements instead of investing these precious COVID relief funds into the educational programming that would help alleviate the consistent low-level educational success of Waterbury students’ experience.
Waterbury’s plan to spend $57 million of their $89 million of American Rescue Plan on property is unprecedented as well as egregious. The $57 million is more than the next 20 school districts combined and more than the 10 school districts most similar to Waterbury in population and demographics. The organization I’ve co-founded, Radical Advocates for Cross-Cultural Education (RACCE), has long pushed against this plan since the first round of funding in 2021.
The COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on the vast inequalities facing many of our communities. Waterbury is a prime example of this undeniable fact. During this most difficult time, our schools have become a space that showcases a lack of racial equity that perpetuates long-known social problems like poverty, violence, crime, and health disparities. The WBoE had an opportunity to address these real issues in a genuine, tangible way that would have given the students of this community the increased access to resources that help build a foundation to succeed in the classroom and ultimately in life.
However, the governing bodies of all schools in Connecticut, the SDE and State Board of Education, along with the WBoE, entrusted with paving the road for the future of Waterbury students, made decisions that have abandoned my community’s young scholars without the resources to maneuver through a road littered with potholes and craters.
RACCE and community partners have organized and used direct stakeholder feedback to create a Community Supported Plan to use the ARP funding to advance racial equity and social justice in our schools. We have presented the plan multiple times to Waterbury Superintendent Ruffin, WBoE, the SDE and the State Board of Education. However, Waterbury officials have never responded.
A harrowing foreshadowing of this blatant decision to turn their backs on the students of this community. These decisions and the manner in which they have been made are representative of a lack of respect and care for students, especially Black and Brown students, English Language Learning students, and LGBTQIA+ students.
The straightforward fact is property upgrades and maintenance should not be done with COVID-19 relief funds. I believe if those in power want to make building upgrades it should be done on a regular basis or through a bonding process with a Capital Improvement Plan that receives a full public vetting.
Waterbury Mayor O’Leary, Superintendent Ruffin, the members of the WBoE and state-level governing bodies were put in these positions to be responsible stewards for all students of Waterbury. The investment of COVID-19 relief funds needed to go directly into our students, educators, staff, and programming — not property.
I lament for the students of Waterbury and the opportunities that will be missed due to this short-sighted and foolish decision. However, one thing I can assure the students, parents, and powers that be throughout Waterbury; RACCE will continue to fight and advocate for the underserved scholars in the Brass City and the rest of Connecticut. And we will do it proudly in the open, not in the dead of night.
Robert Goodrich is executive director of Radical Advocates for Cross-Cultural Education.