Mayor Justin Elicker called the Woodbridge school board decision "unfair," "unethical" and "discriminatory." Thomas Breen | New Haven Independent

Woodbridge’s Board of Education has voted to close its doors to new kindergarten students from New Haven next school year, sparking a debate about special education funding, racial and economic integration, and an urban-suburban divide that seems to be growing by the day.

School board members from the wealthy suburb to New Haven’s west took that vote during their Jan. 17 regular monthly meeting. They voted to not fill two soon-to-be-vacant Open Choice kindergarten seats at Woodbridge’s Beecher Road School. That means that no new New Haven students can enroll in Woodbridge public schools for at least one year. 

Fallout from the decision spilled over last week into the latest Woodbridge Board of Education online meeting. Mayor Justin Elicker and two top New Haven Public Schools officials lambasted the suburban district at the meeting for the ​“unethical and discriminatory” rationale of using a dispute over special education funding to close up Open Choice and bar new enrollees from New Haven.

“The adults may come to different conclusions about what reasonable reimbursement might be,” Elicker said at the Monday meeting. ​“And because the adults have the disagreement, Woodbridge has chosen to end opportunities for New Haven students and Woodbridge students and the Woodbridge school district to experience one another, to be friends with one another, to learn from one another. For you to walk away from this opportunity is putting the adults before the kids and turning your back on equity.” 

Woodbridge Board of Education Vice-Chair Maria Madonick pushed back on Elicker’s critique later in Monday’s meeting. ​“Woodbridge is a very diverse community, and I am proud of that,” she said. 

As for the school board’s vote to not accept new New Haven students next school year, she said, ​“Voting to pause the Open Choice program was a financial decision and speaks to our commitment to taxpayers.”

All of this comes as New Haven affordable housing advocates and Yale Law School lawyers and students have amped up pressure on Woodbridge, including through an ongoing lawsuit filed by an affiliate of the Open Communities Alliance, to promote racial and economic integration by allowing for the development of more multi-family housing in the suburb.

So. What’s going on here? What exactly did the Woodbridge school board vote to do? And why did New Haven leaders come out swinging in response?

“We are missing out on some reimbursement”

The debate hinges on Woodbridge’s and New Haven’s participation in the Open Choice program. The state-backed interdistrict effort, through a lottery system, allows students from one municipality to attend public schools in a nearby city or town.

The goal of the program, as the state Department of Education puts it, is ​“to improve academic achievement; reduce racial, ethnic and economic isolation; and provide a choice of educational programs for public school students.”

The program itself dates back several decades to the Sheff v. O’Neill decision in the mid-1990s. Woodbridge has participated in Open Choice program for well over a decade. There are currently 18 New Haven students enrolled in Woodbridge’s Beecher Road School through Open Choice. There are currently 2,046 suburban students — including 10 from Woodbridge — enrolled in New Haven public schools through that same program. 

Because two of the 18 New Haven students enrolled in Woodbridge are set to graduate from sixth grade this year, two new Open Choice slots are set to open up at the kindergarten level next school year.

If Woodbridge chose to continue participating in the program as it has for years, those two kindergarten seats would be filled by randomly chosen students from New Haven who are interested in going to school in the suburbs. 

During January’s meeting, the suburban school board members voted 6-1 not to fill those two new kindergarten-level vacancies. That is, Woodbridge won’t allow any new students from New Haven into its schools next year — even as the 16 other New Haven students who are already enrolled in Woodbridge public schools can remain in place.

Why the change of heart?

During the January school board meeting, Woodbridge Public Schools Superintendent Vonda Tencza and Woodbridge Public Schools Director of Business Services & Operations Donna Coonan said that New Haven has consistently underpaid the suburban district for the cost of educating New Haven students with special needs who study in Woodbridge public classrooms.

Coonan said that the Woodbridge district received only $131,000 of the $262,000 it was owed from New Haven last school year for ​“reasonable costs” associated with special education services related to the Open Choice program. 

“We are missing out on some reimbursement that we are entitled to,” she said.

Tencza and Woodbridge Board of Education Chair Lynn Piascyzk elaborated on that concern in a Jan. 31 letter sent to NHPS Superintendent Iline Tracey, among others.

“Please note that the concern we will share is not new,” Tencza and Piascyzk wrote. ​“Woodbridge has received mixed messages for a number of years now about what type of reimbursement we can expect from New Haven for the special education services provided to our Open Choice students. For years we have not received full reimbursement for our district’s Open Choice related expenses. Both ACES and the State have stated that we can bill for all reasonable special education services provided under Connecticut General Statutes, 10 – 266aaa. However, New Haven appears to only be reimbursing us for 1:1 Para-educator expenses, which is counter to what the CT Statute indicates. This creates a financial burden that our district is not able to continue bearing.”

During the January school board meeting, a majority of the Woodbridge Board of Education members voted to act on that financial dispute by not filling those two upcoming kindergarten Open Choice vacancies — and thereby closing off the suburban school district to new students from New Haven.

“New Haven is a town with a lot of their own resources,” Woodbridge school board Secretary Sarah Beth Del Prete said during that Jan. 17 meeting.

“I do think that they are used to not having to pay their bills, not paying it in a timely manner, and they’re using towns like us.”

“If a lot of them are requiring special needs,” she continued about the 18 New Haven students currently enrolled in Woodbridge, and if the suburb isn’t being properly reimbursed for those costs, ​“that’s a hard number to figure out.”

The only Woodbridge school board member to vote against the Open Choice opt out on Jan. 17 was Erin Williamson. Woodbridge is a ​“resource-rich community,” she said. ​“It’s very hard for me to vote against” a program that promotes racial and economic diversity simply for financial reasons.

Woodbridge Deputy First Selectman Sheila McCreven raised a similar set of concerns during a Jan. 26 Woodbridge Board of Finance meeting. Open Choice is ​“one of the few efforts to reduce racial, ethnic and economic isolation that we have,” she said. ​“Its been a great program,” and there doesn’t seem to be an enrollment issue. So why close out the program next year for two new students from New Haven to participate in?

Madonick, the school board vice-chair, said the Board of Education is concerned that ​“we have been receiving a disproportionate number of students with special needs because we provide better services than perhaps other towns do.” That is ​“causing an increase in cost.” She pointed out that the ​“sending town” — in this case, New Haven — ​“is responsible for those special services. We are unable to get the sending town to pay for those special services, causing the taxpayers in Woodbridge” to pay instead.

McCreven urged the school board to reconsider its decision to put a pause on Open Choice because of a financial dispute. ​“It seems a shame that we’re taking it out on this cohort of kindergartners.”

Asked in a follow up email for the relevant law or state guidance informing Woodbridge’s understanding that New Haven is underpaying for special ed services, Piascyk pointed to Connecticut General Statute 10 – 266(i), which states: ​“In the case of an out-of-district student who requires special education and related services, the sending district shall pay the receiving district an amount equal to the difference between the reasonable cost of providing such special education and related services to such student and the amount received by the receiving district pursuant to subsection (g) of this section.”

Piascyk declined to say how many of the 18 New Haven students currently enrolled in Woodbridge public schools require special education services.

“The small size of the Open Choice population in the Woodbridge School District precludes me from being able to share the number of students that receive Special Education services as this could possibly provide identifiable information violating the students’ right to privacy.”

“Unethical and discriminatory”

During Monday’s Woodbridge school board meeting, Elicker, NHPS Executive Director of Student Services and Special Education Typhanie Jackson, and NHPS Supervisor of Magnet and Grand Programs Michelle Bonnano criticized the suburban school board for their Open Choice vote.

Elicker expressed his ​“deep concern about Woodbridge eliminating two of the 18 Open Choice seats open to New Haven children.” The Open Choice program relies on a ​“lottery,” he said. ​“Neither you nor I have any control” over who applies. The idea that anyone ​“intentionally sends special needs students to your district is false and offensive. Your choice to discontinue this program because you’ve been receiving too many special needs students, I think, is unethical and discriminatory.”

“It is unfair to reduce the number of Open Choice slots” available to New Haven students just because of cost, Jackson said. She stressed that New Haven has and will continue to pay the ​“reasonable cost” for the education of students with special needs.

“New Haven has paid the reasonable portion of our bill and we will continue to do so the same we have” for years, added Bonnano. She said that Open Choice placement is determined by a ​“random lottery” overseen by Area Cooperative Educational Services, and not by NHPS. ​“It is appalling to me that the Woodbridge Board of Education would withdraw participation in a program” designed to promote racial and economic integration because of a dispute over special education service funding. ​“We hope that you reconsider your decision.”

The only other person to speak up during the public comment section of Monday’s meeting was Woodbridge resident Daniel Del Prete.

“The town of Woodbridge is my town. It’s where I pay my property taxes,” he said. He defended the Open Choice vote as ​“a business decision that this board made. … Our taxes are paid. Our bills are paid. And we expect the same thing to come from our neighbors.”

Tencza, the Woodbridge superintendent, said during the meeting that ​“monitoring how Woodbridge taxpayer funds are spent to support education is one of our board’s highest responsibilities. Equally important to our board is our advocacy for what is best for student learning.” She said the district remains committed to ​“Open Choice’s mission” even as it has chosen not to allow new students to enroll in the program next school year. ​“An ideal resolution would be for the state Department of Education to provide clarification and guidance as to how this law should be followed.”

Various school board members took umbrage with the New Haveners’ critiques later on in Moday’s meeting.

That line of criticism ​“was very insulting,” Woodbridge school board member Brooke Hopkins said. She said the decision to pause Open Choice was ​“not about diversity.” It was about finances, she said.

Asked in a follow up email about New Haven’s take on Woodbridge’s accusation that the city has been underpaying for the cost of educating students with special needs through the Open Choice program, NHPS spokesperson Justin Harmon said that NHPS’ ​“long-standing practice and agreement” with the Woodbridge Public Schools district ​“has been to pay for our students’ individual special education services that exceed the baseline services that WPS would otherwise ordinarily provide to all its students with special needs. Now, contrary to past practice and agreements, WPS and the Woodbridge Board of Education appear to be requesting that New Haven Public Schools pay for baseline education costs as well, inappropriately attempting to bill NHPS for these baseline costs, and then inaccurately alleging that NHPS doesn’t pay its bills. New Haven has paid and will continue to pay its fair share of reasonable costs associated with educating New Haven students with special needs who participate in the Open Choice program, and we hope Woodbridge will do the same.

“For the 2020-21 school year, the mutually agreed upon above the baseline costs were $59,811 for special education and related services. In the 2021-22 school year, there was no agreement in place, and WPS attempted to bill NHPS for $262,774. Then, based on follow up conversations and consensus between NHPS and WPS, NHPS paid WPS $131,728.”

This story was first published March 3, 2023 by the New Haven Independent.