Con­necti­cut schools face un­cer­tain fu­ture

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Barth Keck Barth Keck is an English teacher and as­sis­tant foot­ball coach who teaches cour­ses in jour­nal­ism, me­dia lit­er­acy, and AP English Lan­guage & Com­po­si­tion at Had­dam-Killingworth High School.

The on­go­ing state bud­get mess in Hart­ford has im­pli­ca­tions be­yond the fis­cal fall­out at the state level. As my col­league Terry Cowgill out­lined last week, the fu­ture could be bleak for many of Con­necti­cut’s towns if the state ends up foist­ing dras­tic changes upon Con­necti­cut’s pub­lic schools.

“Ed­u­ca­tion con­sumes 81 per­cent of Scot­land’s $5.9 mil­lion bud­get, which was ap­proved by tax­pay­ers last month,” Cowgill wrote re­gard­ing the small east­ern Con­necti­cut town. “Un­der (Gov. Dan­nel P.) Mal­loy’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der, Scot­land’s Ed­u­ca­tion Cost Shar­ing grant will be cut by 70 per­cent — from $1.42 mil­lion to $426,900.”

Scot­land should con­sider it­self lucky. While Mal­loy’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der in­deed makes sim­i­lar ECS cuts to 53 other towns, 85 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties will re­ceive no such fund­ing at all.

I hap­pen to teach in one of those ze­roed-out dis­tricts. Be­tween Had­dam and Killingworth, the two towns com­pris­ing Re­gional School Dis­trict 17, the loss to­tals $4.1 mil­lion, nearly 10 per­cent of the dis­trict’s bud­get. How does a dis­trict re­coup this kind of fi­nan­cial hit?

“Staff cuts” is the prob­a­ble an­swer. Iron­i­cally, Re­gion 17 had al­ready pared 8.5 teach­ing po­si­tions and six para­pro­fes­sion­als from the bud­get well be­fore Mal­loy an­nounced his ex­ec­u­tive or­der — and this, in a year when the dis­trict’s stu­dent pop­u­la­tion de­creased by ex­actly one, from 2,116 to 2,115.

Just this past Tues­day, Re­gion 10 (Burling­ton and Har­win­ton) an­nounced it will lay off 18 to 25 non-cer­ti­fied em­ploy­ees in re­sponse to Mal­loy’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der.

And the fol­low­ing day, the Con­necti­cut Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion and the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties of Brook­lyn, Plain­field, and Tor­ring­ton filed an in­junc­tion in su­pe­rior court that alleges the gov­er­nor “does not have the au­thor­ity to cut ed­u­ca­tion spend­ing.”

Even if the Leg­is­la­ture some­how passes a bud­get re­in­stat­ing ECS funds, the fu­ture of Con­necti­cut’s towns and schools re­mains un­sta­ble.

“De­spite bor­row­ing $2 bil­lion to boost the fund­ing of (the Teacher Re­tire­ment Sys­tem) in 2008, the pen­sion sys­tem re­mains un­der­funded by $13 bil­lion and that fig­ure is pro­jected to grow over time,” ac­cord­ing to the Yan­kee In­sti­tute, a sit­u­a­tion that “will harm Con­necti­cut’s teach­ers and chil­dren be­cause the state will be forced to di­rect lim­ited re­sources to pen­sions rather than class­rooms.”

Thus, Gov. Mal­loy wants to shift one-third of the state’s teacher-pen­sion costs to the towns, a move that would al­most cer­tainly re­sult in higher prop­erty taxes — the schools’ pri­mary fund­ing source — only ex­ac­er­bat­ing the fis­cal chal­lenges fac­ing lo­cal school dis­tricts.

Any way you slice it, the fate of Con­necti­cut pub­lic schools is de­cid­edly un­cer­tain.

As al­ready seen, staff cuts are a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity, re­sult­ing in larger class sizes and jeop­ar­diz­ing Con­necti­cut’s 40th low­est-in-then­ation stu­dent-teacher ra­tio of 13:1. Of course, in­creased class sizes could be off­set by in­no­va­tions such as in­ter­net­based dis­tance learn­ing, a method of in­struc­tion now of­fered in some form in more than half of U.S. school dis­tricts in 2010. Then again, it’s un­likely that schools in the Land of Steady Habits would in­vest too heav­ily in an out­side re­source like dis­tance learn­ing, con­sid­er­ing the state’s long-time com­mit­ment to lo­cal con­trol of pub­lic schools — a phi­los­o­phy that has served most dis­tricts and stu­dents well.

That said, the calls for re­gion­al­iza­tion are on the rise.

“Each school sys­tem bu­reau­cracy has its own su­per­in­ten­dent, as­sis­tant su­per­in­ten­dents, deputies, etc.,” ex­plains for­mer East Hart­ford state rep­re­sen­ta­tive Gary LeBeau. “The school sys­tems usu­ally con­sume about 70 per­cent of the town’s bud­get. The re­dun­dancy is in the man­age­ment struc­ture. Its costs are enor­mous.”

LeBeau added: “What if we could take th­ese mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and con­sol­i­date them into eight en­ti­ties? Hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, in­deed I be­lieve bil­lions of dol­lars could be saved by elim­i­nat­ing re­dun­dant man­age­ment in the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and in the schools. Could this be done? Has it been done else­where? Yes, all over the coun­try. The en­ti­ties are called coun­ties.”

County school boards in Con­necti­cut? A year ago, I ar­gued against such a sys­tem and didn’t think it would hap­pen here. But des­per­ate times …

Thing is, I’ve only scratched the sur­face of the mount­ing chal­lenges fac­ing Con­necti­cut’s pub­lic schools. A grow­ing skills gap in our tech­no­log­i­cal econ­omy must be ad­dressed jointly by schools and busi­nesses. The need for ba­sic me­dia lit­er­acy among cit­i­zens — a skill that should be taught in all schools — has never been greater.

And spe­cial-ed­u­ca­tion costs con­tinue to rise. Cur­rently, dis­tricts use ECS funds — re­mem­ber them? — to pay for spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion.

Clearly, the fate of Con­necti­cut’s schools is even more un­pre­dictable than the out­come of the state’s bud­get bat­tle. But one thing’s for sure: We should all brace for ma­jor changes.

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