BRIDGEPORT – Mayor Joseph Ganim has committed $500,000 to a new college scholarship for local students based on similar programs in Waterbury, New Haven and Hartford, but with few details about how the money will be spent, some city officials are questioning Ganim’s motives – especially ahead of the coming election.
Given the chance to explain how the scholarships would be distributed and to respond to criticism that the city should first fully find its primary and secondary school programs, Ganim said that the program, a line item in the 2023-24 Office of the Mayor’s budget, would help launch students into successful college careers.
But according to State Sen. Marilyn Moore, one of Ganim’s opponents in the upcoming mayor’s race, $500,000 for a scholarship program is too little to have a meaningful impact in Bridgeport.
“$500,000 isn’t anywhere near what you would need to run that program for Bridgeport, and I’m putting in several million dollars for one year to start the program,” Moore said on a phone call with CT Examiner.
Moore, who said she had taken note of New Haven Promise, Hartford Promise and Waterbury Promise programs, had been planning a similar program for Bridgeport. But rather than spending city funds, Moore said she was requesting funding in the 2024-25 state budget.
“A half a million isn’t going to do anything,” Moore said of Ganim’s budget. “It just looks like something.”
Promise scholarships, which started in 2005 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, provide two-year and four-year grants for college tuition, but vary from city to city. In New Haven, the scholarships have been funded mainly by Yale University since the program began in 2010. In Hartford the program, which began in 2014, has mainly been funded by private donors. That funding was recently supplemented with a $1 million contribution from the city. In Waterbury, a city contribution of $1 million to fund the new program will be matched by UConn, Eastern Connecticut State University and Post University.
But Moore said Bridgeport does not have the resources to support a Promise program without state funding.
“For New Haven, they have Yale who’s helping them. And Hartford has big businesses that can help them,” Moore said. “But Bridgeport – we don’t have those.”
Moore said she would rather see the $500,000 go to the public school system.
Joseph Sokolovic, who chairs the Board of Education finance committee, said the same.
“I’m all for college funding if the municipality could afford it,” Sokolovic said. “Mayor Ganim needs to fund K through 12 education so our kids could get to the point where they could go to college before doing all this.”
Sokolovic also questioned whether the scholarship was a way for Ganim to appease voters ahead of the upcoming election season, especially given a recent cut in the school budget request.
“This being an election year, a shiny new program might have people nibble,” Sokolovic said. “There always seems to be some deflection or misdirection on the budget.”
The school board requested an additional $12.4 million in city funds for 2023-24 budget from the year prior for core services like staff salaries, benefits, transportation and athletics. But in his proposed budget, Ganim cut the $12.4 million request down to $2 million.
Sokolovic said it was “problematic” that the Bridgeport Promise funds are a line item in the mayor’s budget, and questioned how the money would be spent.
“How are these funds going to be given out? Who’s going to qualify? What’s the process the mayor is going to use to distribute this $500,000?” Sokolovic asked.
The three existing Promise programs in Connecticut took varied approaches to distributing funds. Waterbury Promise – the program that Moore said would work best for Bridgeport – has an 11-member board of directors made up of Mayor Neil O’Leary, a prior member of the board of education, attorneys and educators to determine grant recipients.
Waterbury Promise Executive Director Kelonda Maull told CT Examiner that the program is funded with $500,000 from the city budget, $500,000 from the Waterbury schools budget, and private monies from the Cigna Foundation.
Maull said she has supported Bridgeport’s push for a scholarship program and was happy to see funds put aside, but said she also recognized the need for additional funding.
“There’s gonna have to be some private money coming in as well,” Maull said of Bridgeport.
Maull said Waterbury Promise encourages public school students to return to the city, supporting the workforce and economy. For Bridgeport to do the same, she said that city officials must ensure the program is sustainable.
According to New Haven Promise President Patricia Melton, who spoke with CT Examiner on Monday, the scholarship program has increased the public high school graduation rate from 60 percent in 2010 to 80 percent.
Applicants who have attended New Haven public schools for their entire high school career, have a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or more, have completed at least 40 hours of community service and hold a 90 percent attendance record automatically qualify for a Promise grant.
Melton said Bridgeport Promise was “a long time coming,” and looked forward to more programs to follow.
“I think the more Promise programs we have in cities across Connecticut – that is a strategy to really strengthen our economy, keep our students actually here and invested in Connecticut for the many, many jobs that are vacant.”
Hartford Promise President Richard Sugarman said his program was unique in the state in funding every qualifying student enrolling at any college or university across the country.
Sugarman said he has helped other cities with their programs, and advised Bridgeport officials to work together on their scholarships.
“It needs to be a full partnership [between] the city, the school system, citizens, neighborhoods in order for that to work in any city,” Sugarman said.