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Hearing Draws Frustrations On School Funding

March 8, 2006
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

Hartford parents, principals and politicians jostled in a standing-room-only crowd Tuesday as dozens waited their turn to speak to the legislature's education committee, which was conducting a hearing on bills to help equalize state funding for education around the state.

The public hearing convened at night in an auditorium at The Learning Corridor to be more accessible to residents. The committee is gathering comments on two bills.

One bill would eliminate the cap on what municipalities could receive under the state education cost-sharing formula and link future annual increases in the formula to the consumer price index - a government barometer of inflation.

The other bill would attempt to equalize the amount that each town spends on education by lowering state grants to towns that spend more per pupil than the state average and have a local tax rate for school funding that is less than half of the state average. Such towns generally have higher property values and thus can have lower tax rates. The bill establishes a formula to determine how much to reduce state grants to the wealthy towns. The money that is diverted from wealthy towns would be distributed among poor towns.

Rather than address the complicated formulas proposed in the bills, many speakers Tuesday talked about Hartford's tremendous challenges in educating thousands of children who don't speak English at home, and thousands more who lag far behind their grade levels in school.

Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, said the legislature does not look kindly on Hartford and he encouraged officials to "make your case." To do that, he said, the city must discuss its struggles even if it seems counterintuitive to "say, `Look how we're not able to do the job.'"

"But the reality is that the school system has challenges that go way beyond what other school systems have," Fonfara said.

Fonfara reminded city officials that Hartford has an influx of impoverished refugees from Somalia and Liberia, many of whom never attended school before and don't speak English.

And Fonfara, an education committee member, reminded school officials that the city school district toils to teach the many children who are born addicted to drugs or affected by fetal alcohol syndrome.

Mayor Eddie A. Perez, Hartford's school board chairman, picked up on Fonfara's cues. "We are not the efficient and well-oiled machine that we could be," he said. "You're right - we should be admitting where we're at."

State Rep. Art J. Feltman, D-Hartford, questioned Perez about whether the district spends too much money on administrators and not enough on teachers and guidance counselors. "Can we get corporate-style results for those corporate-style salaries?"

Perez said that he and the board are studying the district's finances. And he stressed the district's needs, saying, for example, that the state is funding about 180 fewer preschool slots this year than it was last year. The cap on special education funding is making it all the more challenging for Hartford to mainstream special education students, as the state has pushed the city to do, he said.

State Rep. Andrew M. Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the committee, told Perez that "we don't think it's appropriate to have a cap on special education" and he said his committee sympathizes with Hartford's challenges.

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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