UNION CITY — In a stunning move that reversed one of its most controversial decisions of the past decade, New Haven school board members voted late Tuesday to reopen Barnard-White Middle School this fall without knowing exactly what type of campus it will be or how it will pay for it.
The 3-2 vote roused some meeting attendees to give the board a standing ovation while others left, wondering how the district plans to pay for another campus when it faces a minimum $3.2 million deficit next year.
Barnard-White was shuttered in 2008 because of declining enrollment and to save $600,000.
Trustees always have said they intend to reopen the Decoto neighborhood campus one day, but some had hoped to reinvent it as a small school, language-immersion program, specialized academy or another learning environment different from a regular middle school.
The board on Feb. 16 is scheduled to discuss budget cuts that could include teacher layoffs, class-size increases and cuts to transportation, co-curricular programs and stipends.
Trustees Gertrude Gregorio and Kevin Harper, who cast the dissenting votes, said reopening a school at the expense of other districtwide cuts, and without funding secured to ensure continued operations of Barnard-White beyond next year, would be irresponsible. They also wanted more details about the proposal before approving a plan.
"Every decision is a balancing act," Harper said. "Small school versus small classes. ... There's a lot to be said for small schools. There's also a lot to be said for small classes."
About 80 people turned out for the four-hour discussion, many in support of reopening Barnard-White as soon as possible. They said it would benefit the entire community, as innovative programs are piloted at Barnard-White and, if successful, replicated at other schools.
Marianna Ramirez, 27, a lifelong Decoto resident, spoke of the challenges her nieces and nephews face in getting to Cesar Chavez Middle School, more than 2 miles away, because of a lack of affordable transportation.
"Our students on this side of the district are being neglected," she said. "Aren't we important enough to have a school on our side?"
The evening started with a recommendation from a task force committee to open a small school of 150 sixth-graders at Barnard-White starting in September, and to expand it to seventh grade, and possibly eighth grade, the following year.
But board members rejected that proposal because they thought it served too few students, were concerned about funding or because there were too many unanswered questions.
So it surprised some when board President Gwen Estes proposed instead that the school open for students in grades six through eight this fall without specifying what type of school it would be.
"The kids of the Decoto community have every right to expect a neighborhood school because that's what the other neighborhoods have. ... For every day it's closed, that's another child whose dreams are (deterred)," said Estes, who opposed the school closure from the start.
Supporting Estes' suggestion were trustees Michelle Matthews, a lifelong Decoto resident who was not on the board when it voted to close the school, and Jonas Dino, who did vote for the closure, saying at the time that he was "watching out for the financial health of the district."
This week, some community members said reopening Barnard-White during the worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression is unsound.
"If we lose class-size reduction next year because we open a small school or reopen a school we closed previously, then I think 3,000 children will be affected next year — and not for the better," said Charmaine Kawaguchi, president of the New Haven Teachers Association.
There's also the scrambling that will take place the next few months as district staff members redraw school boundaries, or revert to old ones, figure out staffing levels, and identify teachers to transfer to Barnard-White. Last time, representatives from the district and teachers union discussed such changes about a year before the school closed to plan for the move.
"Now, we have four months to plan. The task is monumental to try to accomplish all that we have to do," Kawaguchi said.
Some people fired off e-mails to trustees after their vote, criticizing the board for rushing into a decision — especially one counter to the task force's recommendation — without holding community meetings to gather public input, as it did several years ago when the board discussed closing Barnard-White. One e-mail alluded to a "dictatorial" decision-making process.
Even task force members took issue with the vote. Member Mimi Bauer said anyone paying attention to the district's finances should object to the board's vote and that it approved a plan without much detail.
"This is a level of incompetency that is mind-boggling," she said. "How can you vote for something that is not fully explained? How can you vote for something that is so dramatically going to affect thousands of children?"
Some task force members said while they're pleased that Barnard-White will reopen, they want assurance that the new school will be an improvement upon the old one, where only 38 percent of students performed at grade level or higher in English and 26.5 percent did so in math.
Delia Castro, a member of Congregations Organizing for Renewal, which was heavily involved in the task force, hopes community members will be involved in finalizing details of the new school.
"I'm happy they are going to reopen the school, but I don't want Barnard-White to reopen as it was," she said. "I want something in place that is going to challenge the kids."