School leaders from throughout the state warned Thursday that local schools face an impending crisis this summer when federal stimulus money that has buoyed education spending disappears.
The officials, meeting at the state Legislative Office Building, urged lawmakers to take action during the upcoming session to protect education funding, which could suffer a $270 million shortfall for each of the next two years when stimulus money vanishes July 1.
"Our new governor and legislators need to make public education the number one priority in the state," said Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.
Organizations representing superintendents, school boards and school business officials announced a campaign to raise awareness that local school systems stand to lose thousands or even millions of dollars if the state does not continue to fully fund education grants to towns.
For the past two years, the state has cut education aid to towns by 14 percent and made up the shortfall with federal economic stimulus money. In other words, the state used $270 million in stimulus funding for each of the past two years to prop up education funding to towns.
"We are extremely concerned about the impending crisis that we face," said Don Blevins, president of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. "There is nothing left to cut. In order to meet a cut of this magnitude we will have to eliminate or pare down foreign language, physical education, health, sports and after-school activities and increase class size."
School leaders are worried that the state may not restore the money. A cut that size, coming after two years of budget-cutting, would be particularly painful for poor urban districts.
New Britain, which has already been battered by budget cuts that have dramatically increased class sizes, would stand to lose $10.5 million, — the equivalent of 17 teachers — said Sharon Beloin-Saavedra, president of the local board of education.
"This is much more than cutting foreign language in the middle schools, which we've already done, cutting cleaning aides to keep the buildings clean, which we've already done, or cutting paraprofessionals to support students in lower levels — we have already cut that," she said. "Fourteen percent in New Britain is a loss of core programming, and our class sizes are already at 29, 30-plus."
Elsewhere, Hartford stands to lose $26.8 million and Bridgeport would fall $23.4 million short. Wealthier towns, however, would see a smaller impact because they already receive less support from the state. Cornwall, for example, would lose $12,172 and Warren, $14,235.
Sarai Peart,17, a senior at Bloomfield High School, was one of three students who spoke Thursday, explaining how budget decisions affect students. She spoke of the disappointment of losing electives and the frustration of being in a large class.
"I've been in a class where there have been close to 30 kids and it's hard to focus," she explained later.
Education officials say the necessary money must come from the state, but had few specifics about how that would happen.
State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D- West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee, suggested that the state close the funding gap by raising taxes on high-income taxpayers. He said he finds it shameful that lower-income workers pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than "someone who runs a hedge fund."
Fleischmann also said he would fight to protect a state law that prevents towns from cutting school spending. The law, called the minimum budget requirement, essentially guarantees that each school system gets a budget that's at least as large as the previous year's.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, a lobbying group for cities and towns, has proposed abolishing the requirement, saying that it prevents them from making sensible spending cuts.
"I think they're dead wrong and I'm disappointed that no one from CCM approached any of us on the education side about this ahead of time," Fleischmann said.
Lawrence Craybas, chairman of the Bethel Board of Education, spoke of his frustration as his board tries to compile a budget. His school board is concerned not only about the loss of stimulus funding, but also about losing grants for special education and finding money to train teachers and prepare for upcoming high school reform requirements, he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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