Bridgeport Schools Seek 15.44% Hike to Address Budget Shortfalls

Bridgeport Facilities and Finance Committee members discuss the school superintendent's budget proposal on Feb. 28, 2024 (Bridgeport Public Schools YouTube channel).

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BRIDGEPORT — Aiming to break a streak of near-flat funding as federal coronavirus funds run out, school Superintendent Carmela Levy-David is asking for 15.44% budget hike of $41 million for the 2024-25 school year.

Over the last nine years, the Bridgeport Public Schools budget has increased by an average of 1.09 percent annually. But at a Wednesday Facilities and Finance Committee meeting, Levy-David proposed a 15.44 percent increase to $309 million for the upcoming school year.

Levy-David, who was hired by the district in June, said the school board needs to advocate for the additional funds from the city and state, dip into its savings and examine areas in which the district is “hemorrhaging” money.

The district received about $100 million from the American Rescue Plan, which must be spent by the end of September. Without additional funding from the city, state and board, the superintendent said the district will continue to face challenges such as poor student performance, limited per-pupil spending and rising expenses for out-of-district student placements. 

“The percentage of increase from year to year has not kept up with inflation, and has definitely not kept up with student needs in the district,” Levy-David said.

Bridgeport’s requested percentage increase surpasses proposals by similarly sized and surrounding districts. Compared to David-Levy’s 15 percent request, Stamford’s superintendent asked for a 6.4 percent increase, Fairfield’s superintendent requested a 5.5 percent increase and Stratford’s superintendent asked for 6.7 percent. 

Levy-David asked the city to increase its contribution by $16.7 million — a 22 percent jump — for a total of $75.5 million. She said the district is also anticipating an $8 million increase from the state through the Alliance District program, which sets aside funds for Connecticut’s lowest-performing districts, for a total of $192 million in state Education Cost Sharing funds.

While a 22 percent increase from the city may seem high, Interim Chief Financial Officer Patricia St. Louis said the district must make up for low funding in recent years.

Last year, the school board requested an additional $12.4 million to offset learning losses. Instead, the City Council approved a $2.5 million school budget increase, $500,000 more than Mayor Joe Ganim’s proposal.

Given the history of relatively flat funding, committee member Albert Benejan Grajales questioned whether a 22 percent increase from the city is realistic.

“We always have this issue. Always,” he said. “Everybody knows that this is not new.”

Benejan Grajales, who supported John Gomes in his mayoral bid against Ganim, said the city has consistently cut the school board’s budget request. If the superintendent wants to secure additional funding, he said, she needs a plan.

Should the board not receive the requested city funding, St. Louis said it will need to dip further into its savings — the Internal Service Fund. The superintendent has proposed allocating $12.8 million from the fund, which currently holds approximately $36.6 million, for the upcoming budget.

Levy-David also claimed district inefficiencies and inconsistent leadership have allowed excessive spending to slip through the cracks. 

“I think that the fact that we’ve had five superintendents in the past 10 years has created a great deal of instability throughout our school system, not only at the classroom level, but also in the business office and at the financial level,” she said.

Over the past eight months, Levy-David said she’s been focused on reviewing district finances and flagging overspending, particularly regarding the growing costs of out-of-district placements and substitute teachers.  

According to the superintendent, out-of-district placements of special education and expelled students can cost Bridgeport up to $90 million per year. And due to challenges in staff recruitment and retention, the district is relying on employing substitute teachers to ensure schools operate effectively.

Several board members and parents have expressed concerns that the district will cut federally-funded staffing positions under the new budget, but David-Levy assured that the district has various measures it can take before resorting to layoffs. 

“We have not been made whole for over a decade. But we’ve also had a merry-go-round of leadership, a merry-go-round of inefficiency and a merry-go-round of different systems being implemented. … If we want stability, we have to be the stability we want first, and that begins with this board,” she said.

Along with utilizing city and board funds, the superintendent outlines what she said were efforts to secure an equitable portion of state funding for Bridgeport schools. Last week, David-Levy said she visited the state Legislature to oppose Gov. Ned Lamont’s latest budget proposal

Under Lamont’s plan, Connecticut would remove $64.5 million from a fund designed to offset the loss of federal pandemic funds and redirect a portion of it toward early childhood education. David-Levy said the proposal would be “detrimental” to Bridgeport and many other school districts.

“I really wanted to ensure that the Appropriations Committee was very clear about what the immediate needs of school districts like Bridgeport are … and for them to really honor the money that was promised prior to this fiscal year and prior to the governor’s announcement,” she said.

According to her presentation, the superintendent expects to receive $12.5 million in state grants outside of the Education Cost Sharing funds, and $22 million in federal grants.

Besides Benejan Grajales, the three-member finance committee largely did not push back on the superintendent’s proposed budget. And committee Chair Akisha Cassermere declined a request by Benejan Grajales to open the Wednesday discussion to all school board members.

Cassermere said the members will have the opportunity to ask questions about the proposal at the March 11 board meeting.