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Magnet Schools May Feel Pinch

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 tough choices."

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 Learning Center.

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 schools.

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 operating.

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 Learning Center.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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