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School Budget Crunch

Hartford's Achievement First Academy survived a funding shortfall last year, only to face another one this year

Daniel D'Ambrosio

February 10, 2009

Threatened. Saved. Threatened again.

That's the short history of Achievement First's Hartford Academy, the North End charter school that overcame a $2 million funding shortfall from the state last summer to open on schedule in the fall, only to find itself now facing another money crisis.

At first, the most recent funding crisis appeared to be a mistake. When Gov. M. Jodi Rell visited the school in October, she committed to fully funding the Hartford Academy and all charter schools for fiscal years 2010 and 2011, according to Principal Jeff House. When Rell released her budget last week, the budget summary included the same commitment to fully fund the state's charter schools.

But the numbers didn't add up, said Alex Johnston, chief executive officer of ConnCAN, a state education advocacy group. For the two-year budget, there was a $13 million gap between the number of slots for charter school students that everyone agreed were required, and the number that actually were funded.

"What is unique to charter schools is their funding stream goes through a Byzantine process by which every single seat every year has to be funded through legislative appropriation," said Johnston.

Still, given the governor's rhetoric, Dacia Toll, president of Achievement First, which operates eight charter schools in the state, and others crossed their fingers and hoped the shortfall was an oversight.

"We still don't understand the discrepancy between what we believe to be the governor's intention to fund Achievement First Hartford and natural grade growth at other schools and the numbers in the budget," said Toll last week.

On Monday, House said he believed the funding gap "really was a mistake," calling the Oct. 27 visit of Rell a "great day" for the school.

But when asked about charter school funding, the governor's office issued the following statement through spokesman Adam Liegeot: "Governor Rell's proposal allows for 750 new students to attend Connecticut charter schools over the next two years and the Governor is rightfully proud of that proposal. Governor Rell was able to fund the existing system and add slots at a time when she had to make cuts in all areas of government. Governor Rell wishes she could do more, but the state simply does not have the money right now."

Without the money it needs to expand beyond the three grades it opened with kindergarten, first and fifth the Hartford Academy will be left with its choice of bad options: send this year's 85 fifth graders somewhere else in the fall, or create a sixth grade for them, but eliminate the fifth grade.

House remained optimistic in the face of the disheartening news.

"We faced this last summer and we made it," he said. "We think there's a solution now too."

Jennifer Jackson, whose two daughters, Raeyah and Janaya attend Hartford Academy, will be testifying on behalf of the school before the legislature's Appropriations Committee this week.

"I love the school," said Jackson. "I'm just disappointed this keeps happening."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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