Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Real Education Challenge.

Governor Malloy has decided to take on teacher tenure. While I applaud his interest in accountability and academic success for Connecticut’s children, I am not so sure that teacher tenure is the most important issue facing our public education system.
The most important thing that we can do for our public education system is address the gross inequities in the school finance system and then take steps to arrest the explosive growth of school expenses.
Every school district in the Greater Danbury area is asking for a substantial increase from their local municipality for the coming  school budget, every year school districts and municipalities across the state engage in what can sometimes be a rancorous debate about how much the budget will increase – most of the time the proposed increase far outpaces the rate of inflation. In many communities the school budget actually goes up even when the school population goes down (with the exception of Danbury - as we are growing).
The discussion is never about cutting the current budget, it’s always about “cutting the proposed increase” that has been requested by the local school board and the Superintendent of Schools.
Cities and towns are put on a never ending treadmill that their limited property tax base can’t possibly keep up with – leaving the property taxpayer to continually fund the increases. Bridgeport was the first community to hand the State of Connecticut the keys to the school district because of their inability to adequately fund their schools – in the coming years, I suspect more may follow.
The number one driver in these budgets are personnel costs divided between salary increases and health insurance. In many cities and towns, teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, custodians, and other support personnel are the largest pool of municipal employees. Modest raises and changes to the health care benefit have a tremendous impact on the school budget. In Danbury, of the 7.2 million new dollars requested by the Board of Education, almost 4 million dollars are for benefits and wage increases.
The structural problems of education finance will continue and will accelerate in the coming years, leaving student outcomes as an after thought if the actual cost of education is not addressed.
The second piece of the puzzle is the ECS formula itself. I am thrilled that Danbury schools will receive more money under the proposed state budget. However, there is a structural flaw in the formula that short changes Danbury even with the increase that has been proposed.
Under the new budget Danbury will receive an increase of $1,696,559 or almost 7% to our ECS grant. That will make our total grant $24,554,515. Our student population is 10,505. All that sounds great - until you compare us with other communities in the state.
Bristol: Total ECS Grant – $43,047,496, student population?  8,762.
East Hartford: Total ECS Grant – $43,425,561, student population? 8,027.
West Haven: Total ECS Grant – $42,781,151, student population? 7,390.
New Britain: Total ECS Grant –  $73,929,296, student population? 10,854.
As you can see there is no rational reason why some districts who are much smaller than Danbury receive tens of millions of dollars more in aid or a reason that a district that is slightly larger than Danbury, receive almost three times our grant.
Teacher tenure? It’s important, no question. But, it will all be moot if we don’t grapple with school funding and school finance.
Kinda hard to worry about tenure when districts can’t afford text books and are busy laying off teachers..

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