As Finances Tighten, Superintendents Balk At Magnet School Expenses
Town Officials Preparing To Sue State Over Mandates
By MARK SPENCER
July 10, 2011
At a time when school systems are wringing every penny out of their budgets, some local leaders are growing increasingly frustrated about the cost of sending students to magnet schools, part of the state's plan to integrate Hartford schools.
Some superintendents are particularly irked by a state mandate that they pay for 3- and 4-year-old students to attend pre-kindergarten programs at magnet schools, saddling them with tens of thousands in unexpected costs. They also contend that they should not have to pay for their students to attend half-day magnet programs.
They are preparing to sue the state Department of Education over the mandates, and some have refused to pay bills they have recently received.
"We don't believe we're responsible for it, but we are now being billed for it," said Superintendent Alan Beitman of Regional School District 10 in Harwinton and Burlington. The district has hired an attorney to prepare a lawsuit and has approached nine other suburban school systems to join it.
The magnet schools are designed to offer special curriculums in a racially balanced setting, attracting students from both the suburbs and the city. In suburban schools, seats then become available for Hartford students to attend through the Open Choice program.
The state is trying to increase participation to comply with the settlement in the Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation lawsuit.
"We understand the districts' concerns, but we also have a mandate from the court," said Kathy Demsey, an education consultant for the state Department of Education's Sheff office.
Local schools have always had to pay for students who want to attend magnet schools full time, but have long complained about the compensation they get for taking Open Choice students. The state gave districts $2,500 for each Open Choice student. They had to contribute up to $4,700 for magnet school tuition, with the state covering the balance.
"The problem was the imbalance in the cost," Newington Superintendent William Collins said.
The state's new budget addresses the problem, increasing the per-student Open Choice subsidy while offering an incentive for districts to meet the goal of having Open Choice students account for 3 percent of each district's enrollment.
The new formula will provide $3,000 per student if enrollment is 1 percent or less, $4,000 for 1 to 2.99 percent, and $6,000 for above 3 percent. Other financial incentives also are available.
"It's led to additional seats being open," Demsey said.
The overall goal set by the Sheff settlement is for 41 percent of Hartford students to be enrolled in Open Choice or magnet schools by 2013.
The increased Open Choice subsidy has alleviated some local concerns at a time when the state is stepping up efforts to recruit magnet students from the 28 participating districts in the Hartford region.
The state has a $275,000 contract with a marketing firm to promote the schools. It also has given marketing budgets of $70,000 each to the Capitol Region Education Council, which runs seven magnets, and the Hartford school district, which has six.
"We're very aggressively marketing." Demsey said.
They have an attractive offer when it comes to pre-kindergarten programs. Parents looking at spending up to $12,000 for a pre-kindergarten program with after-school activities can instead get it free, recruiters tell them.
There's even a regional transportation system to get students to the schools.
But the aggressive recruiting has exacerbated local concerns about paying for pre-kindergarten magnet students, especially when they can't afford to offer such programs in their own districts.
It has also highlighted what appears to be a breakdown in communication among the state, local districts and some magnet operators.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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