Some call Bridgeport school budget forums “bashing sessions”
BRIDGEPORT — The idea was to get ahead of what is bound to be another tumultuous spring budget season by holding community conversations in all 10 city council districts.
It seemed so important to the city school board that the forums became one of School Superintendent Aresta Johnson’s goals in this school year.
The first three, however, have apparently caused enough bruised egos that there had to be damage control.
Moving forward, the forums will be special meetings of the city school board with set agendas, in hopes of reigning in the message.
“We need these forums but they need to continue in unity,” Board Vice Chairman Jessica Martinez said. “We are in financial turmoil but divisive measures don’t help us ... If we make enemies it won’t help.”
The school system of 21,000 has declared itself underfunded for years and over the past three years has made crippling personnel and programming cuts to handle rising costs. The operating budget this year stands at about $248 million, roughly $8 million more than it was five years ago.
During each session, board member Maria Pereira has taken the microphone to tell the audience how little the city council and mayor have contributed to the bottom line.
“I am stating facts about a mayor proposing three straight budgets with zero percent increases,” Pereira told the board when they debated the issue this week. “It is factual information. They have harmed the city.”
Martinez said Pereira is doing more than stating facts when she calls out council members who don’t show up to forums. Some turn out to have been sick.
Council member Karen Jackson, who represents the 138th district, said when she attended a recent session, she was admonished for being late. They truly were “bashing council sessions,” she said.
“I was verbally berated about voting for a budget even though I am the only parent on the city council with children at home,” Jackson said. “So my presence there was to be admonished, more or less, to be seen and not heard.”
Jackson said the superintendent called her the following morning to apologize for the way she was treated.
As a parent, Jackson said she questioned the value of the forums, saying school staff do most of the talking, leaving little time for questions.
Maria Viggiano, a council member who attended the Johnson School forum, said the relationship between the city and school board has historically been tense but that there is an effort to change the harmful dynamic.
“I was happy to attend the meeting at Geraldine Johnson School and hear the testimony of parents, students, and teachers. I stand with these school communities as an ally and will continue to keep an open ear and work in partnership with them,” she said.
Hernan Illingworth, who along with board member Chris Taylor favored putting a stop to the forums, said his concern is that they are doing more harm than good.
Board Secretary Joe Sokolovic countered that if council members feel uncomfortable hearing how budget cuts hurt students, they may get a sense of how he feels when he has to make program cuts due to an insufficiently funded school budget.
Martinez said the sessions needed to continue to build bridges ahead of the 2019-20 budget season.
“We need to extend olive branch,” she said. “ If we continue to create enemies, we are not going to get anywhere for our children.”
Under the new format, the sessions will be special school board meetings with an agenda. Those that lack quorums will become information sessions.