Connecticut schools face uncertain future
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.