HARTFORD — Public school superintendents are hailing a proposal to accelerate growth in state aid as a solution for the expiration of federal covid dollars used to increase staffing and pay for programs in many districts over the last three years.
At a forum at the state Capitol on Wednesday, officials from public schools, charter schools and magnet schools spoke about how a change to the school funding formula would allow them to retain staff.
According to Michael Morton, deputy executive director for communications and operations at the School and State Finance Project, a nonprofit organization for equitable education funding, estimated that the change would cost about $275 million in additional education funding in year 2025.
The bill, which was proposed last year but did not pass — would accelerate the phase-in of a formula that was meant to gradually increase state aid for the majority of schools in the state over a period of 10 years — from 2019 through 2029. According to the current proposal, the districts would receive the full amount of funding beginning in FY 2025 — the same year that districts will lose federal COVID funding.
Superintendent Nate Quesnel of the East Hartford Public Schools said the district has spent the majority of its COVID relief funds on technology costs. But he said the funding he was most worried about was the $3.04 million the district was using for “acceleration specialists” to catch children up academically.
“There is no home for them in our local budget,” he said, adding that the decision would be either to increase local taxes or to layoff staff.
If the bill were to pass, East Hartford would receive approximately $8.9 million more from the state in 2025 than it is currently scheduled to receive.
Superintendent Tamu Lucero of Stamford Public Schools said that her district had used COVID relief funds to pay for over 100 positions within the district, including elementary school security guards, social workers and kindergarten paraeducators. She told legislators that once the positions were eliminated, they would be “very hard” to bring back into the district.
“I’m going to have to make a really hard decision in about a year to figure out what we are going to do about this,” said Lucero. “We need your help in helping us figure out how we’re going to get over this fiscal cliff that everyone’s telling us we’re on.”
Under the proposal, Stamford would receive an increase of about $7.5 million in aid in 2025 compared to current law.
The 88 school districts scheduled for a drop in their state funding will continue to see that decrease happen gradually through the year 2030. But some legislators said they believed the state formula needed to be tweaked to better take into account the needs of students in those districts.
State Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, said that Tolland loses $330,000 each year under the current funding formula. She described Tolland as a “middle class town” with one of the highest mill rates and one of the lowest per-pupil expenditures. She said each year, the town has to raise its school budget $330,000 to make up for the loss.
“Which makes my town a town that is, frankly, too expensive to live in for a lot of people,” said Nuccio.“It does not promote diversity. It does not promote having people of various incomes living there.”
Nuccio said that when the funding formula finally reaches its bottom point, Tolland students would be receiving about $2,000 per pupil in state funding per year.
“I would argue that that’s an unrealistic amount … if you ever want my town to have more opportunities for other socio-economic classes,” she said.
Charters and Magnets
The proposal also increases the per-pupil amount of money that charter and magnet schools receive from the state. Charlene Reid, the founder of Stamford Charter School for Excellence, spoke in favor of the bill, which would increase charter school reimbursement based on the number of students who are considered “high needs” — those who come from low-income backgrounds or speak a language other than English.
Reid said that some estimates found that it would bring her school an additional $2,000 per pupil.
“Two thousand per pupil can help pay for more teachers, can pay for tutors, programming, and what’s more important now than ever before — mental health supports,” said Reid.
The proposal would also provide need-based aid to magnet schools. In exchange, the magnet schools would not be allowed to charge tuition to the districts where the students live. But in the eventuality that the state fails to fund the full amount promised to the schools, the bill allows the magnet schools to charge districts the amount they would have received from the state.
Quesnel, from the East Hartford Public Schools, said that the cost of paying tuition for the almost 1,100 students who attend magnet schools in his district costs about $6 million.
“[It’s a] very challenging bill for us to pay, as I send money out, but then contemplate cutting services in [district]. That’s not what families sign up for when they move into our communities,” he said.
Kate Ericson, CEO of LEARN, which runs four magnet schools in southeastern Connecticut, said that the bill would also be advantageous to magnet schools. She said the school had used the COVID dollars to hire more mental health professionals, to form a kind of “SWAT Team” that could support a child.
“Yes, we have all been talking about COVID relief dollars expiring, but, no, the needs of our students have not expired,” said Ericson, adding that the LEARN schools were currently running at a deficit.
She said that the magnets could try to compensate for increased costs by raising tuition for the districts that the students come from, but that this would “just make the problem worse.”
State Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, chair of the Education Committee, said the pandemic money had allowed school districts to provide interventions for students that “likely should have always been there to begin with.”
“If we don’t have a very serious conversation right now … we are looking to go backwards,” Currey. “And that is the last thing that we need to do when we know that we have some of the lowest performing districts not only in the state, but in the country — right in our backyards.”