Education advocates from across the state are worried a 14 percent gap in state aid for local schools will mean fewer teachers and higher property taxes.
The funding gap was created when the legislature decided to use $540 million in federal stimulus funds to help fund state aid to local schools over the past two years.
A coalition of CT Association of Boards of Education, the CT Association of Public School Superintendents, and the CT Association of School Business Officials said Thursday morning that the consequences of the funding gap will be dire and immediate.
“We are about to go over a cliff,” said Robert Rader of CABE.
Rader said that failure to close the funding gap would result in immediate cuts to the already strained budgets of the state’s public schools.
“We are calling upon the state today to find the funding so that our districts remain able to provide the type of education that our students will need if they are to lead the state and the country in the workplace of the 21st century,” he said.
While noting the impact of the funding loss will vary from district to district, Rader said it will likely result in the elimination of teachers, sports programs, physical education, music programs, and technology education.
Rep. Andy Fleischmann D-West Hartford, co chair of the Education Committee, noted that while the state has been able to keep funding to schools flat over the last three years, that steady funding represents cuts as the cost of education rises.
“I’m hoping that we’re able to put all those pieces together and that comment about state support for cities and towns means that we will keep education cost sharing at the same level that it’s been at for the last three years, which by the way in real terms is a cut,” he said. “The cost of electricity continues to go up. The cost of heating continues to go up. The cost of natural gas continue to go up. The cost of paper and pens and other school supplies continue to go up. So you level fund means you cut.”
Fleischmann said that school systems have been hard at work to create efficiencies too because the level funding has been a cut.
“Personally I would rather see in increase dollars for education but recognizing the crisis we’re in, we should at least level fund,” he added.
While Fleischmann and the education groups attempted to reinforce the importance of the funding, some high school students and school officials at the press conference said the situation is already worse than state officials may realize.
Bristol Eastern High School student Calvin Brown said that while he is happy with education he has received so far, the programs at his school are in danger.
“As funding for education is cut or lost or not properly fixed, it’s inevitable that class sizes will increase and some of the important aspects of education will be lost in the city of Bristol and across the state,” Brown said. “It’s important to make sure that my generation of people is equipped to compete on a global scale and that’s becoming harder and harder as time progresses. Class sizes have increased. We’re just about at the largest class sizes as we can handle.”
Sharon Beloin-Saavedra, the president of the New Britain board of education stood up and said that cuts to her city’s education budget would have a much larger effect than the cutting of enrichment programs. It would directly cut into core curricular programming, she said.
“So 14 percent of New Britain’s education budget, which is $10.5 million, every million dollars in New Britain is equivalent to 17 teachers. This is much more than cutting foreign language in the middle school, which we’ve already done, cutting cleaning aids to keep the building clean and aesthetics, loosing paraprofessionals to support lower grade levels, we’ve already done that,” she said. “Fourteen percent cut to New Britain mean loss of core programming and our class sizes are already at 27 to 30 plus students a classroom.”
While everyone seems to agree that cuts to educational funding would be a bad thing, ideas for closing the funding gap are harder to come by. Fleischmann talked about possibly finding revenue by creating a more progressive income tax structure.
Earlier this week, Connecticut Conference of Municipalities spokesman Kevin Maloney told reporters that the group’s first priority this session is to make sure the state funds the ECS grant at least at the same levels as it did last year.
And as Fleischmann mentioned, Malloy and his new budget director Ben Barnes have repeatedly said they do not intend to hold municipalities at fault for the loss of those funds.
“I am embarrassed that during the last 16 years Connecticut’s share of state dollars flowing to local boards of education to support education went from being on par with the national average to being 17 percent below it,” Malloy said in June, adding that the problem cannot be ignored.
“I think it was wrong minded and I have to do everything in my power to hold communities harmless of that particular cut,” Malloy said Thursday at an afternoon press conference.
Recently, Barnes said the issue hasn’t been forgotten and he hopes to find a way to allow local governments to find their own alternative revenue streams.
“It continues to be our goal to hold local governments harmless on ECS, specifically. We’re not looking to pawn off wholesale costs to local governments,” he said.