The state budget crisis edged closer to Connecticut's classrooms Wednesday, when the state school board reluctantly endorsed more than $280 million in potential spending cuts next year.
Leaders of local school systems reacted grimly and warned that reductions of that magnitude would seriously bruise public education.
"The numbers are devastating," said Patrice McCarthy, general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.
"While we're bailing out business, we can't be selling out children," said John Ramos, superintendent of the financially ailing Bridgeport schools.
The state board cautioned that $230 million of rollbacks in Education Cost-Sharing grants would slam the budgets of towns and cities. The cuts would be "nothing more than a transfer of the fiscal crisis from the state to local districts and municipalities," the board wrote in a prepared resolution.
The list of cuts is only a recommendation, one that Gov. M. Jodi Rell can tweak, overhaul or ignore as she prepares her state budget proposal for release in February. But with Connecticut facing a projected $6 billion deficit over the next two years, state officials anticipate reductions in every part of government.
Rell directed all state agencies to detail what they'd do if they got 10 percent less money next year. For education, that would mean losing about $283 million.
The state board offered $53 million by slashing grants and trimming expenses of its technical high school system. But the big money — $230 million — would have to come out of Education Cost-Sharing aid to towns and cities, it said. The board urged Rell to avoid that, but said if the cut must be made, it should be done with a formula to minimize damage to poor cities.
ECS funding and other state grants are already heavily skewed toward the poorest communities with weak local tax bases and concentrations of needy and troubled children. Super-wealthy suburbs in Fairfield County receive an average of $682 per student in state aid; big cities such as New Haven and Hartford get an average of $9,111 per student.
Cutting ECS grants by 12 percent across the board would inflict the heaviest damage on the cities. Instead, the state board suggested various formulas that would reduce aid by $413 to $428 per student. That could wipe out most grants to affluent suburbs, while doing relatively less harm to cities. Even so, the impact would be crushing for cities that are already badly underfunded, Superintendent Philip Streifer of Bristol said. His city could lose from $3 million to $5 million, and he has spoken openly of the likelihood of layoffs next year, a prospect many other superintendents acknowledge only in private.
"Our programs are already thin at the margins. Whatever we take out will have to come from regular education," he said, noting that about a third of school spending goes to special education programs that are required by state and federal law.
Lobbying groups for cities and towns will join the state teachers union, local superintendents and the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education in pressing legislators for support between now and budget-setting season. "Now, it's on to the governor and the legislature," CABE's McCarthy said after Wednesday's meeting.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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