Photo: Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media
BRIDGEPORT — Control over a city-run after-school program used by more than 2,000 city children has resulted in competing grant applications landing simultaneously on the desk in a state Department of Education grant office.
Without a state budget, it may not matter.
“In the absence of a state budget we are in unchartered territory with not only this grant, but our other competitive grants as well,” Laura Stefon, chief of staff in the State Department of Education, said on Tuesday. “The scoring process is currently on hold until we actually know how much money we will have to work with.”
Schools Superintendent Aresta Johnson filed an application with the state on July 31, 2017 to secure a $600,000 grant to run after school programs at nine city schools: Blackham, Discovery, Hallen, Black Rock, Johnson, Winthrop, Tisdale, Multicultural, and Roosevelt.
At the same time, the city submitted applications to continue its Lighthouse after school programs in the same schools without Johnson’s required signature.
Johnson told the school board on Monday the applications were built on falsehoods and riddled with inaccuracies.
Even so, the school board voted 5-3 to require Johnson to co-sign the city’s applications.
The push to keep the program in the hands of the city was led by Dennis Bradley, a school board member who didn’t see why the district would tamper with a program that seems to be running well.
“Parent gives it high praise,” Bradley said. “I don’t want to see something that is working well to be tampered with.”
Board Vice Chairwoman Sauda Baraka said it was time to try something different, by creating an after school program that is less babysitting and more an extension of the school day. The superintendent’s proposal would partner with Yale University School of Medicine.
“We want a program that is going to be impactful,” Baraka said.
The city run its afterschool program in 23 schools. Some sites are funded through the competitive state grant, others through federal monies.
This past school year, the operation was the target of a protracted battle as the cash-strapped school district threatened to shut down the program unless the city started paying rent to use the buildings. Days before the Lighthouse summer program was to start, an agreement was reached that called for the city to pay for school crossing guards and the after school program to pay the district for supplies it uses.
Afterwards, Johnson said she decided to design an after school program that aligned with daily teaching and leveraged what resources the district has available.
Johnson said she found the existing Lighthouse program lacking and sent a list of 17 concerns to Lighthouse Director Tammy Papa. She asked for data that showed the Lighthouse program was improving student achievement and that Lighthouse staff received training referenced on grant applications. She questioned why school principals are called to the school late at night when children did not get picked up. The grant says that responsibility lies with Lighthouse staff.
Papa said she responded to all of Johnson’s concerns and that the applications, to her knowledge contain no mistruths. She had no idea the district was applying for grants on its own.
“(Johnson) did ask me to partner with the district (as lead applicant),” Papa said.
City officials refused to make the switch. Papa said by switching the order, the program would lose 30 points awarded to repeat applicants.
Board member Howard Gardner said order does matter, but with funding, not points. State funds flow through the district but are currently controlled by the city.
Gardner said he found it curious that Mayor Joseph Ganim — hands off when it came to the board’s deep fiscal woes — reportedly called Johnson to urge her to sign the city’s Lighthouse applications.
“It tells you where the mayor’s interests are,” Gardner said.
Baraka questioned whether the program is being used for patronage jobs, pointing out that during the Finch administration, the city placed a mayoral aide position unrelated to the after school program into the Lighthouse budget.
Bradley balked at “this perception of corruption plaguing our great city.”
“It is not a perception,” Baraka responded. “It is an absolute reality we have had people go to jail in this city because of political corruption.”
Board Chairman Joe Larcheveque said he welcomes ideas for improving the program but did not want to risk leaving working parents without after school options for their children.
“It’s a model program,” he said. “My son used it.”