Letter: Chair of Portland Board of Education Responds to Open Choice Reporting

I read the article in the CT Examiner entitled Few Rules, Little Oversight for $11 Million Open Choice Program.  I have served as the Chair of the Portland Board of Education since December of 2017 and beg to differ with the inferences and conclusions put forth in this article. 

As stated in this article, the State views the Open Choice Grant as an entitlement grant and does not track a district’s expenditures. However, the Portland Board of Education conducts a great deal of oversight regarding all of the District’s financial decisions. We play an active role in formulating the yearly budget and are provided with regular financial reviews throughout the fiscal year. We are provided with specific information regarding the number of Open Choice Students attending our schools and the amount of the grant received relative to their attendance. We are informed as to how and where those funds are spent. I can therefore only assume that the lack of oversight Mr. Maloney refers to must be attributed to the Board of Education in the town where he was employed. Our Superintendent, Dr. O’Reilly,  takes his responsibility for the education of our students and his accountability to the Board seriously. 

I would further disagree with the conclusions attributed to Ms. Karch, a former Portland School District Employee, that the Open Choice Grant operates as a “private purse for Superintendents and Board of Education Chairs.” That certainly does not happen in Portland. As previously stated the Board of Education as a whole is regularly provided with financial information regarding this grant and all other funds coming in to address the District’s expenses. Unlike in some communities our finance committee is the entire Board of Education and each member has an equal voice and vote as to financial decisions. I make no financial decisions on my own and have no slush fund. I work hard to ensure that all Board Members have the information required to make an informed decision as to all issues that come before it.

I would echo the sentiments expressed by Dr. O’Reilly in his response to the article. The benefits to all of our students from our participation in this program are many. Many of these benefits can be measured academically but some cannot, and in some respects are more important than those subject to academic measurement. Learning about life from another’s perspective while not necessarily measurable, is priceless. 

Its unfortunate that only two former district employees were interviewed for this article. As Ms. Werth indicates at the beginning of her story there are 13 school districts that receive Open Choice Grant funds and over 2200 students from the City of Hartford who take advantage of it. To paint a picture meant to color an entire program based on such a limited point of view is disingenuous.

Sharon A. Peters
Chair, Portland Board of Education


Julia Werth responds: As part of the reporting for this story, Cromwell, Avon, Rocky Hill, Bolton, Ellington and Glastonbury were contacted regarding their use of Open Choice grant funding. Despite multiple phone calls and days to follow up, none of these districts provided a comment or explanation. The Open Choice grant arrives after the budget process and is not included in the yearly budget. The school board may be informed of the spending, but they do not vote on the use of the grant funds.

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