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Bristol Official Warns Of Fiscal Disaster For Urban Schools

Urban schools

DON STACOM

November 20, 2008

Warning that education in Connecticut's cities faces impending disaster, the chief of the Bristol school system is calling on state lawmakers to suspend standardized testing, shorten the school year and authorize teacher furloughs.

Even with those emergency actions, Bristol along with many other urban school systems across the state will be short millions of dollars, and could be forced into layoffs and program cutbacks for the next two years, Superintendent Philip Streifer said Wednesday.

"The public needs to understand the scope of this problem. I'm not going to stand by while public education is decimated," he said. "I'm one voice, but I'm shouting."

Streifer's warning came a day after state budget analysts reaffirmed that Connecticut is on track to a staggering $6 billion budget deficit for the next two years. Gov. M. Jodi Rell has called for $284 million in state education spending next year, a measure that could knock out 6 to 12 percent of education cost-sharing aid to municipalities. That would slice into revenues for suburbs and rural towns, but would most severely hit cities, which rely on state money to pay for half or more of their school costs.

We've been perennially underfunded, and we're in a much more vulnerable position than towns," said Christopher Clouet, superintendent of New London's schools and chairman of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents. The association this month agreed to ask the General Assembly to temporarily shorten the school year if state education cost-sharing is cut.

Eliminating staff development days and suspending the Connecticut Mastery Test and Connecticut Academic Performance Test would knock 10 to 15 days off the school calendar without cutting into the curriculum, Streifer said. Furloughing staff would save Bristol about $300,000 a day, he said.

Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport have been laying off city workers this year, but so far municipal officials around the state have carefully avoided discussing the possibility of teacher layoffs. Top educators in several cities did not return phone calls Wednesday, and superintendents in Middletown and Manchester declined to talk about whether layoffs or furloughs are options next year, saying they haven't completed their budget proposals yet. Even Clouet sought to ease the impact, saying the association's suggestion for reducing the school year would be negotiated with unions.

"I'm not using the word furloughs," he said, but acknowledged that cutting staff hours would yield the primary savings in a shorter year.

School systems typically seek annual increases to cover pay raises, rising health insurance premiums and increasing special education costs. Streifer said Bristol would need about a 6 percent increase about $6 million more just to provide the same services next year; East Hartford schools recently projected they, too, would need 6 percent to keep up.

In a letter on Wednesday, Streifer said it's clear that such increases won't be coming this year.

"The state is broke and is proposing a cut" in aid, he wrote. "Connecticut is facing the worst crisis in public school financing in memory; there simply is not enough new money around to solve it."

Streifer emphasized that school systems can make up deficits only by cutting into regular classroom education; state law protects special education services against most reductions.

Bristol and other cities "could experience a next cut in regular education of 25 to 30 percent over the next two years," Streifer wrote. "This would be devastating and would be "Strike Three: for public education as we know it."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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