School Funding Gap A Growing Concern

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By STEPHANIE REITZ, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Calvin Brown’s classmates at Bristol Eastern High School might not know the minutiae of school funding, but they do notice as class sizes creep up and extracurricular offerings shrink.

Starting July 1, state aid to Bristol’s schools could plunge 14 percent, or almost $12 million over the next two years. In nearby New Britain, home of Connecticut’s largest high school, about $21 million is on the line.

It’s a scenario that could play out statewide as Connecticut legislators search for a way to avoid a looming $540 million, two-year shortfall in Education Cost Sharing state aid for local school districts.

That hole was filled last year with federal stimulus money, but that runs out July 1.

Dozens of town school board members, superintendents, parents and a handful of students, including Brown, brought their concerns to the state Capitol on Thursday.

They have formed a coalition to urge legislators and Gov. Dan Malloy to make it a top priority to find a way to fill that gap. It’s part of $3.67 billion in red ink that Malloy inherited when he was sworn in Wednesday.

If the deficit is not erased, it would be the first across-the-board reduction in Education Cost Sharing money to schools since the program was enacted in 1988.

“We are about to go over a cliff,” said Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

Coalition members aren’t suggesting particular cuts elsewhere or tax increases to compensate for the education shortfall, saying state lawmakers should determine those details.

But they say if the deficit isn’t addressed, local school districts and municipal boards have very few options: cut school spending, cut municipal services to balance the school costs, increase property taxes or a combination of all three.

State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, the co-chairman of the legislature’s education committee, said he and others are committed to finding a way to address the funding gap _ though they don’t yet know exactly how.

“The issue here today, education funding, is inextricably linked with jobs and the economy. We have to get it right,” he said Thursday.

Malloy presents his new two-year budget proposal on Feb. 16. He said Thursday that closing the ECS gap is one of his goals.

“It is a high priority,” he said. “I’m going to do everything in my reasonable power to do that.”
But he also is being pulled in dozens of directions by groups fearful of cuts in other services, each making a case with the same passion as the ECS advocates.

All Connecticut school districts get money under the ECS formula, which sets the amounts based on student population, poverty and other factors.

It’s intended to help narrow the achievement gap between Connecticut’s poor and wealthy cities, though it’s been criticized in a pending lawsuit as making little progress over its 22 years.

Connecticut’s cities, whose poverty rates entitle them to the highest yearly aid, would lose the most money if the ECS gap is not filled by July 1.

The largest two-year decreases would be $53.6 million in Hartford; almost $47 million in Bridgeport; and about $40.6 million in New Haven.

In New Britain, which could lose $21 million, school board chairwoman Sharon Beloin-Saaverda said every $1 million in budget cuts equals about 17 teaching jobs. Cuts have already been made in paraprofessional staffing and foreign language classes because of budget concerns.

And in Bristol, officials closed an elementary school last year to save money and have little wiggle room left to absorb more cuts, Superintendent Philip Streifer said.

Brown, an 18-year-old senior at Bristol Eastern, accompanied Streifer to the Capitol on Thursday because he felt so strongly about helping preserve school services for his younger classmates.

“I don’t think many students know much about the political side of this because they don’t think of education in terms of politics, but they do see people making cuts at home and they’re now seeing those gaps at school, too,” Brown said.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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