Facing Budget Constraints, Some Districts Plan To Send Fewer Students
March 5, 2006
By JIM FARRELL, Courant Staff Writer
Kathy Johnson desperately wants her
daughter to attend the highly regarded Metropolitan Learning Center
magnet school next year, but the already slim chances of that happening
dropped even further last week.
"I was devastated," Johnson
said after the Windsor Board of Education reduced from 30 to 20
the number of new students it will send to the Bloomfield magnet
school next year. Windsor officials say they can save $51,000 next
year by scaling back their participation in magnet schools.
The Ellington school board has taken
a similar stance, citing budget pressures for its recent decision
not to send any new students to magnet schools next fall.
"I'm very saddened by it,"
Ellington School Superintendent Richard Packman said. "Philosophically
and morally, we're committed to these magnet programs. But financially,
we're under-funding our schools in towns. You have to make some
For magnet schools, which for years
have fought to receive adequate funding from the state, the latest
trend is troubling. The state has built more than a dozen magnet
schools in the Hartford region in an effort to reduce racial isolation
as part of the landmark Sheff vs. O'Neill lawsuit.
"If we see over time a significant
erosion from participating towns, it would be a major issue,"
said Joseph Townsley, director of magnet schools for the Capitol
Region Education Council.
Townsley said none of the other 50
districts that feed into his council's schools has indicated plans
to reduce participation thus far this year.
"But as they go through the annual
dance on the budget, that's not to say they may not make reductions
later on," he said.
Officials at the council are among
those hoping a legislative task force can help find solutions that
will help stabilize the funding system for magnet schools.
Johnson's daughter, Jasmine Giles,
is among 105 Windsor fifth-graders whose names are entered in a
lottery that will be conducted on Friday for admission to the Metropolitan
That means Jasmine has a 19 percent
chance of getting in, down from a 29 percent chance before the reduction.
"I'm not going to get nervous,"
said Johnson, adding that she doesn't dwell on the lottery because
she doesn't want Jasmine to be disappointed if her name isn't picked.
"But everybody raves about"
the Metropolitan Learning Center, Johnson said. The school serves
sixth- through 12th-graders from six area communities, features
a global and international studies theme and has laptops for all
students. "It would open up a lot more doors for my child."
Elizabeth Feser, the school superintendent
in Windsor, said the district also would stop paying tuition for
eight kindergartners at the Montessori Magnet School in Hartford.
"This is not about the quality
of these programs - they're incredible," Feser said, noting
that Windsor has spent about $1.4 million in Metropolitan Learning
Center tuition in the past four years alone. "We've been partners.
We've been supportive. But we've got some real constraints and have
to find savings in our budget."
State Rep. Andrew M. Fleischmann, D-West
Hartford, who is helping lead the legislative task force, said local
funding concerns are just part of a complicated equation. The task
force is studying issues including the state funding formula, the
amount that districts receive as reimbursement for transporting
students, even a statewide coordination of the sites of future magnet
The state this year is contributing
$6,250 in tuition for each student at a magnet school. Towns typically
pay about $2,400 tuition per student at most schools.
Because that total doesn't cover the
per-pupil cost, which is more than $10,000 annually, the state each
year is forced to make supplemental appropriations to keep the schools
The state now gives districts about
$1,200 per magnet school student for transportation, but local officials
say that doesn't cover the full cost.
Although there is a consensus that
the funding system is flawed, a solution has been elusive.
Finding ways to make funding fair while also achieving the magnet
program's ultimate objective - to address racial segregation - "is
a challenging balance to strike," Fleischmann said.
He said systemic changes need to be
made and Townsley, a former Simsbury superintendent, agrees.
"All these interdistrict magnet
schools were founded based on handshakes and promises between districts,"
Townsley said. "We need a consistent, steady flow of money
from the state."
The recent magnet debates in Windsor
and Ellington could be repeated in other districts during the next
month or two.
With most superintendents saying a
6 percent budget increase is needed just to keep up with contractual
obligations and soaring energy costs, school boards are scrutinizing
any spending that is considered discretionary.
While some parents such as Johnson
are angry about Windsor's decision, Bill Generous, who has a fifth-grader
and sixth-grader in Windsor public schools, said he believes the
district did the right thing by cutting back its slots at the Metropolitan
Generous said magnet schools drain
many of the brightest students from a district, and with them, their
educationally passionate parents.
"I suppose it's a bit selfish,"
said Generous, who did not enter his boys' names in the magnet school
lottery. "But the more good performers the district retains,
the better the schools will become."
Paul Cheney, who has a daughter in
fifth grade entered in the lottery, said he is a bit conflicted.
Cheney said he was disappointed when
the Windsor slots were reduced but he is confident his child will
receive a quality education either at the magnet school or Windsor's
Sage Park Middle School.
"This isn't really about
a choice anyway, it's about a chance," he said. "This
still gives you a chance."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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