Johnson: School funding is not the reason I am leaving
BRIDGEPORT — Without a huge infusion of new money, it is likely more jobs in the city school system will be lost and one or more schools will close.
The situation is bleak.
It is not the reason Schools Superintendent Aresta Johnson says she gave her 90-day notice this past Tuesday.
“Oh, I am not leaving the district because of financial resources,” Johnson said during an interview Thursday in her office on a decision that sent shock waves through the district, filled Johnson’s inbox with well wishes and flooded social media with speculation.
Johnson stepped into the role knowing there were financial challenges. She knew it was in the job description.
Her decision to leave the job — and at the end of July instead of when her contract ends in April 2020 — was a hard one, she admits.
“I absolutely love the work that we do here as a team in Bridgeport and all of our amazing students whom I will miss,” she said.
“I own this decision. It’s time,” Johnson said. “Life happens. This is my time to move on.”
Johnson was frank in her remarks on leaving and on the district. The school board was the only topic she wouldn’t talk about when she agreed to speak.
She refused to say if or how much school board dysfunction or her relationship with its members played in her decision.
“I won’t go there,” she said.
“It’s a dark day in the city of Bridgeport,” said City Council Member Ernie Newton. “It’s not just about money. It’s about letting superintendents do their job. The board’s job is to set policy, not to micromanage.”
In the two-plus years Johnson has had the title of school’s chief, a job that carries with it a $250,000 salary, she has dealt with a city school board that often pulled her in different directions and sometimes accused her of taking sides.
When Johnson tried to get state funding to start a district after school program, she refused to sign off on a separate grant application for the city’s long-standing Lighthouse after school program without a disclaimer that she viewed it as inaccurate. Board Chairman John Weldon characterized her saying she was signing it under duress as borderline insubordination.
When she obeyed a board directive to stop community forums on the budget because some board members labeled them as too political, Board Member Maria Pereira started telling Johnson she should resign.
“I never once questioned Dr. Johnson’s commitment to our students, families and staff,” Pereira said this week. “She never wanted to be involved in the corrupt political climate lead by Mayor Ganim, and his Chair John Weldon. The political climate became intolerable, and she had been unhappy for some time.”
Not the first
Johnson’s predecessor, Fran Rabinowitz, laid the blame for her departure squarely on what she called relentless harassment from Pereira.
Rabinowitz — who while in Bridgeport turned down an offer to be state Commissioner of Education and now is executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents — filed a Human Rights complaint against Pereira and lost.
Johnson took over as interim when Rabinowitz left at the end of 2016. She has been the district almost 12 years — with a two year gap between 2012 and 2014 during the time Paul Vallas was the district’s interim schools superintendent.
Gary Peluchette, president of the district’s teachers union, said since Jim Connelly left as superintendent in 2000, there hasn’t been one who left saying “my work here is done.”
Johnson said she struggled with the decision to leave. She knows the district is one that benefits from stability. At first, she said, she thought putting the board on notice that she would not seek an extension past April 2020 would give them time to find a replacement.
“However over past several weeks, I have been giving it more thought,” she said. “This is the decision I have come to.”
Johnson has been an educator for 20 years. Before that, she was a pharmaceutical chemist who was raised in Waterbury. Moving to Bridgeport was a contract requirement. She said she has come to love the community and lives in the city with her husband, Keith.
As of Thursday, she said she does not have a new job lined up.
“Right now, I am not committed to anything,” Johnson said. “I will be local. I will be here.”
Johnson said her time left in the district will be focused on the mission.
“I try to be deliberate,” she said.
Two days this week were spent traveling to Wethersfield on a teacher grievance. Thursday night, she made one more plea at a City Council budget hearing to boost district funding — not to add things but to keep what the district has.
Many of her administrators and union leaders stood behind her and applauded her words.
“While we make decisions that are in the best interest of adults, we have to start making decisions that are in the best interest of our students,” Johnson told the council, suggesting the tax break Mayor Ganim wants to give out would be better spent on the students of Bridgeport.
With the state appearing to pledge $2.6 million more to the district of 20,400, the system will be short $11.5 million to keep things as they are because of rising costs, the school board has said. The mayor’s budget calls for flat funding schools for the fourth time and at the same time offers a tax cut.
Johnson said she doesn’t understand the district’s chronic underfunding. The city contributes 26 percent of what it costs. The state contributes the rest.
There ought to be a mechanism in place, she said, for students to get the education they deserve.
“Funding for teachers and for our students sends a resounding message that folks care about our children,” she said. “If you are going to change a city, you have to start with changing the education within the city. We should not be at this juncture every single year.”
“I want to do right for kids, first day or last day,” Johnson said.
She will spend the next three months putting together a budget plan based on what the district receives.
Knowing that she won’t be in the district in the fall makes it harder, not easier, she said.
“It’s impacting lives,” she said. “Because I won’t be here, I have to be more concerned about the decision making.”
Johnson said highlights of her tenure include bolstering early college experience courses in the high schools, with the number of students enrolled and passing increasing yearly. The graduation rate is up. So are the district’s standings on a state accountability index, sort of a district report card that factors in student test scores and more.
She also points with pride to the district’s continued efforts in the area of social emotional learning, which began under Rabinowitz.
The district also has stepped up efforts to hire more teachers of color. Last year, 48 percent of new staff hired were minorities, she said.
Her advice to her successor will be to remain committed to students with every decision they make.