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Municipalities Must Pay For Their Students At Magnet Schools



January 16, 2009

A 2007 law that opened wide the doors of magnet schools to any interested family is clobbering Hartford-area school districts with unexpected tuition payments.

Officials in several school systems, including Vernon, Enfield, East Hartford and Bloomfield, say they're struggling to afford the cost of sending children to the 11 magnet schools operated by the Capitol Region Education Council.

In East Hartford alone, the bill is close to $945,000 for 365 children this year.

Educators say the problem is expected to get worse in 2009-2010 when a state law kicks in reducing funding by 25 percent for every child a district sends to a magnet school. That reduction, to be partly offset by a 4.5 percent increase in state funding, has superintendents in New Haven and New London lobbying for a change in the law.

The complexity of Greater Hartford's magnet school scene with Sheff v. O'Neill magnets, regional magnets and "host" magnets in Hartford and some towns plays havoc with budgets, said David Title, Bloomfield's superintendent of schools.

"The whole thing is just a big mess," he said.

The situation became even more unpredictable late last summer when CREC opened three more magnets to comply with the latest Sheff school desegregation agreement.

"Districts were caught by surprise by the numbers after CREC opened its new magnets," Title said.

The intent of the 2007 law was to allow families to send their children to any magnet school that had openings even if their school system did not participate in that school.Before then, school districts had more control over which magnets they would send students to and how many students they would send.

"Up until 2007, families were often blocked," said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D- West Hartford, co-chairman of the General Assembly's education committee. "If there are open slots, we want these children to be able to enroll."

As a result, there is no cap on how many students can go to the non-participating magnets from each town, Title said.

"This open-ended obligation is the real problem," Title said. "It makes it hard to budget."

Although school systems are educating fewer students because some of their kids attend magnets instead, local officials say they can't simply reduce their costs proportionately to offset the money they are spending on magnet tuition.

The students going to magnets come from different grades and schools in a system, so it's not as simple as closing a classroom or eliminating a teaching position to balance the books.

"It doesn't [always] translate into savings for the district," said Mary Alice Dwyer Hughes, chairwoman of the East Hartford Board of Education. "We can't lay off a teacher. We still have to heat the buildings."

Tuesday night, the East Hartford board will consider taking $300,000 it saved on energy costs and spending it on the unexpected tuition payments. The school system had budgeted about $645,000 for magnet tuition and now faces paying $300,000 more it hadn't planned on.

That's a burden in hard times, Dwyer Hughes said.

"Spending $1 million on magnet school tuition that's a lot of money," she said.

This year, some districts actually make money if their per-pupil state Education Cost Sharing money is higher than the tuition and many children leave the district, said Tom Murphy, the state Department of Education's spokesman.

"Removing one kid will likely not result in big savings, but if you send 30 kids to a magnet and you keep your ECS dollars, that favors the sending districts," he said.

Still, districts are very worried about next year's looming reduction in state money when children opt for magnet schools, Murphy said.

"That gets the suburbs nervous," Murphy said. "It's a big, big issue."

Districts are also concerned when regional education service centers, including CREC, receive $7,600 in state funding for every magnet school student but charge school systems $9,000 on top of that for schools like the Public Safety Academy in Enfield, Murphy said.

CREC officials said they make every effort to hold down costs. In opening three new schools in just 90 days last summer, CREC found that enrollment was lower than expected and costs were higher, said Donald Walsh, CREC's deputy executive director for finance and operations.

CREC did not feel it could pass on those unanticipated costs to the districts, he said, so this year it has absorbed $3,578 per Public Safety student, $2,013 per student at the International Magnet School for Global Citizenship and $1,846 per child at the Reggio Magnet School of the Arts.

Next year, CREC expects the Public Safety tuition to drop to $4,600 per pupil as enrollment grows from 105 to 210 students, Walsh said.

Dwyer Hughes said the state should fully fund magnet schools as part of the Sheff agreement.

"School choice is a wonderful option, but the way the legislature has set this up has put local school boards in an adversarial position with the magnet schools," she said.

At the request of Vernon officials, state Rep. Claire Janowski, D-Vernon, has introduced legislation requiring the state to cover magnet tuition.

"Municipalities cannot afford the cost shifting to them," she said.

Vernon, for example, receives $4,200 in state funding per child, she said, but pays $9,000 if a child enrolls at the Public Safety Academy.

Fleischmann said the education committee will consider Janowski's proposal, but economic pressures on the state will make extra funding unlikely. In fact, he's worried that state funding for education will be cut. If that happens, the legislature will have to find other ways to help districts, Fleischmann said.

"If the dollars go down," he said, "we have to think about loosening or deferring mandates."

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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