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Rules Shackle Schools

Budget Crunch


January 11, 2009

The current financial crisis is catching up with the state's public schools. Gov. M. Jodi Rell is requiring state agencies to shave at least 10 percent from their budgets. This means that the proposed state budget will slash more than $200 million in aid to local school districts. Communities rely on these funds to keep local taxes in check and pay for the basic necessities of public education.

The proposed cuts will be devastating. The inevitable elimination of programs and teaching positions will gut instructional quality. In some towns, schools may need to be closed to save costs, even if it increases the number of students per classroom elsewhere.

Moreover, with special education costs running four to five times those associated with educating other students, residents will be bitterly divided over educating a special needs child in the face of cutting other programs. In small school districts, it may take many referendums to pass a budget. Larger districts are no less immune, with acrimony building between residents with children in the school system and those without.

To avoid this crisis, the burden must be shared. State government and municipalities must take bold steps

First, legislatively imposed educational mandates must be suspended or repealed. State officials are often so removed from local concerns that they impose mandates without funding and with the knowledge that they cannot be met.

A Connecticut law set to take effect this year, for example, would require all suspended students to remain in school for continued instruction. A laudable goal, but no town has the money for the additional teachers, security, space and instructional planning necessary to implement such a mandate.

On a larger scale, the state-imposed annual testing of elementary students (the Connecticut Mastery Test) has become an incoherent and unfunded mandate that swallows expenditures in local budgets. Such tests should be suspended for at least three years, saving districts the cost of hiring or assigning staff members to supervise their administration and security. This would save money and free teachers to teach students instead of teaching to the test.

Second, the state should re-allocate the millions of dollars currently given to Connecticut's six Regional Education Services Centers to administer programs for special needs students who cannot be educated at local schools. We question the efficiency of these regional centers. They use state funds to hire program directors, coordinators, administrators and support staff at offices and educational spaces throughout the state. A local board of education could never afford to pay for the same administrative overhead.

Moreover, these regional centers charge local school districts tuition for students sent to their programs, sometimes as much as $50,000 per student, plus transportation. We believe that at least some portion of the money given to these regional centers can be used to hire staff at the local level to provide similar programs at significant savings.

Third, local school boards and superintendents, especially in large school districts, must reorganize their staffs to realize economies of scale while satisfying contractual obligations. If we can team science and math courses and wrap them around an engineering or technology program, then the same can be done with program supervision. Doing so can result in savings and provide better instruction.

Fourth, school districts are joining together in cooperative arrangements to buy fuel, supplies and textbooks, which brings savings. School leaders, empowered by the General Assembly, should also be permitted to enter into cooperative arrangements for health insurance and life insurance. These are usually huge expenditures in a local budget and, if districts cooperate, they can realize significant savings by writing contracts for hundreds of employees rather than a few dozen.

Fifth, there is a large cohort of qualified and certified elementary and, in most areas, middle and high school teachers without jobs. At the same time, there is a growing interest in providing one-to-one instruction for special needs children. We are certain that these soon-to-be-teachers, in the current economic environment, would consider part-time shared assignments, which could save districts the salary and benefits of full-time aides.

Getting beyond these difficult times will not be easy for anyone. But it will be next to impossible for stale bureaucratic structures rooted in stagnant leadership and ideas. From the state to the local level, an unprecedented crisis calls for unprecedented solutions.

Julius J. D'Agostino, Ph.D., is the superintendent of schools in Lisbon. His son, Michael C. D'Agostino, is chairman of the Hamden Board of Education.

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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