New Britain Common Council meeting on the municipal budget. Monday, June 14th at New Britain City Hall. Public participation invited at 7 p.m.
A final Council vote on the 2011 municipal budget is now due but the public will have an opportunity to weigh in on the decision Monday, June 14, at 7:00 p.m. at City Hall during public participation.
Advocates of restoring some funds to the school budget are urging testimony on Monday to avert heavy teacher layoffs and the prospect of class sizes of up to 40. The situation prompted a page one story in The Hartford Courant over the past week reporting on the loss of an estimated 135 teachers. (Story link below). “We need your support to get the Council to give education some funding for the upcoming budget year,” said DTC Vice Chair Bob Sanchez of the Board of Education. “We can’t afford class sizes of 30 to 40.”
In the waning days of budget deliberations city councillors have been weighing what combination of certain cuts throughout city government and property taxes to levy in response to Mayor Stewart’s initial 7 percent tax hike and his firm stance to limit funding being allocated to the public schools. Stewart called the threat of 40-student classes “a scare tactic.”
The Council and Board of Education (BOE) members held an “unprecedented” open discussion on the school budget last Tuesday without resolving what BOE members say is a gap of several million dollars in school funding .
After years of a continuing disconnect between City Hall and the BOE, Majority Leader Phil Sherwood and BOE President Sharon Beloin-Saavedra succeeded in organizing a healthy exchange on questions of school expenditures and what New Britain allocates for education under the current revenue system. Not even the partisan bombast of Republican Ald. Lou Salvio could derail a frank discussion over school budget priorities.
One exchange between GOP Ald. Mark Bernacki and BOE President Beloin-Saavedra set a constructive tone but no agreement at the 11th hour. None was really expected.
Bernacki challenged the high costs of such items as transportation ($10 million) and vouched for a return to “neighborhood schools” where students could walk to class every day. Beloin-Saavedra said the intra-city transportation costs stem directly from efforts to maintain high educational standards and the need to open magnet programs and small-scale “learning communities” to retain and attract middle class families. Such programs as the DiLoreto Dual Magnet, the Lincoln School’s Pathways program and HALS Academy for gifted students are in high demand citywide. Without these programs the flight of middle class families would accelerate, argued both Beloin-Saavedra and Ald. Sherwood.
There was broad-based agreement that popular inter-district magnets such as Classical and Capital Prep in Hartford are a further drain on the education budget as New Britain students enroll in these regional alternatives that draw many students outside of Hartford. By contrast, New Britain offers no inter-district magnet programs as a way to alleviate over crowding of New Britain High and bringing more education dollars into the city.
Beloin-Saavedra said the “flat funding” of schools raised the prospect of larger class sizes and also could threaten New Britain High School with more “resource deprivation.” NBHS was recently removed from probationary status by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) and restored to accreditation.
Proponents of restoring funds to the school budget claim that over time New Britain schools have been “chronically” under funded in state school aid that has been made available to the city. Other urban systems apparently do more than the minimum. School officials also used the Tuesday meeting to debunk claims that the school district is administratively top-heavy. Supt. Doris Kurtz asserted the opposite is true.
The reality of a deep recession has reduced the Common Council-Board of Education divide this year thanks to the joint discussion that probably should have happened long before June. That was the good news.
But in the 2011 year the over-reliance on property taxes as a means of paying for local education again jeopardizes adequate funding for schools. Ald. Bernacki observed that nothing has really changed during his long tenure on the Council. “Property taxes shouldn’t be used to fund education,” he said in a rare and bipartisan consensus statement.
It should not be forgotten that policies have been pursued on a statewide basis by New Britain’s legislators that could have helped this year, including comprehensive property tax reform and equitable school funding formulas. To their credit, the Democratic lawmakers this year averted Gov. Rell’s and other GOP proposals to cut deeper into municipal aid during the state budget impasse. For more than 20 years, the reforms on property taxes and school equity have fallen by the wayside because of GOP Governors’ vetoes and town and suburban legislators who would not override because they think the status quo is just fine in their backyards.
A final budget vote will be taken by the Council and sent on to Mayor Stewart this week. The numbers are showing that the public schools need more money even if the BOE gets generous concessions from the teachers’ unions and other employees.
Put simply the Common Council will pick its poison. Give the schools more money just to keep the “resource deprivation” from getting any worse. Or take the GOP route: Stiff the schools to save a few dollars on the tax rate . The latter would send a damaging message that New Britain’s children can be held hostage to an outmoded and regressive tax system — a message with long-term, negative consequences for our city.
– John McNamara
For more information. The Courant and Herald covered the budget and teacher layoffs last week.