HARTFORD— — Jack Chiaramonte, chairman of the Norwalk Board of Education, teared up Wednesday as he told the General Assembly's Education Committee of an education-cost-sharing plan that would direct about $10 million in state funds to his city, while Danbury, a comparable city, would get $25 million next year.
"We are looking for an equitable solution," Chiaramonte told the committee. "This is definitely not it."
His testimony came during the second day of a two-day public hearing on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed education reform package. Although Malloy's proposal would increase funding for Norwalk next year, Chiaramonte said, it's not enough to compensate for a formula that has consistently underfunded Norwalk, as well as Stamford.
Rep. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, responded: "I'm from Stamford, so I feel your frustration. I want to say thank you for letting the rest of Connecticut see the passion. We also have the same issue."
Most of Wednesday's hearing, which started at noon, focused on financing schools — regular public schools, vocational-agricultural schools, charter and magnet schools. With almost 70 people signed up to testify, the hearing was likely to last into the evening. Tuesday's hearing — which centered on proposed changes in teacher tenure and certification — went until midnight.
Chiaramonte said he would like to see the education cost-sharing formula revamped so that it no longer includes property values in the calculations and puts greater weight on the number of low-income students in a community. While there are properties in Norwalk worth millions, Chiaramonte said, almost half the students in Norwalk schools are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.
Advocates for charter and magnet schools praised the governor's plan to increase funding for those schools, raising the per-pupil state grant from $9,400 to $11,000. Cities and towns would be required to add $1,000 per student, bringing the total to $12,000.
Fatimah Khan, a student at Side by Side Charter School in Norwalk, said she was told that if her school "continues to be funded with less money than other public schools, we will probably have to close our doors ... Please support the governor's budget."
Jim Finley, executive director and chief executive officer of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, told committee members that the group agrees with most aspects of the governor's proposal, except for the $1,000 cities and towns would be asked to pay for each student attending a charter school.
Finley questioned why the governor would increase the education cost sharing to municipalities by $50 million in his proposed budget, only to diminish it by $6.4 million for the 6,400 students expected to go to charter schools next year.
"Why would you want to take and put $50 million in the left pocket of municipalities," Finley said, "and then have $6.4 million come out of the right pocket" to go to charter schools.
Christina Kishimoto, superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, told lawmakers that forcing districts to pay an additional $1,000 for each student in a charter school would make districts reluctant to collaborate with charter schools.
"Our desire is to see charter schools fully funded through [education cost sharing]," Kishimoto said.
Doreen Richardson, chairwoman of the Windsor Board of Education, said she wouldn't mind paying $1,000 for each student in a charter school.
Richardson said that according to the governor's proposal, Windsor's contribution for charter schools would be $62,000. She said that a "student of color" would be more likely to succeed on the Connecticut Mastery Test at Jumoke Academy, a charter school in Hartford, than in the Windsor Public Schools.
"This is the stark reality of the students of color in my district," Richardson said.
Many other topics were raised during the hearing — concerns over inadequate funding for agricultural-vocational programs; the need for more mental health services for schoolchildren; the effect of the governor's proposal on teachers' collective bargaining rights.
Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said that Connecticut has a long history of supporting the rights of public employees such as teachers to collectively bargain over working conditions as well as benefits and other salary issues.
"This bill strips teachers and other professionals of this long-honored right for no apparent reason," Levine said.
Levine said that while the CEA supports the creation of a Commissioner's Network to turn around the state's lowest-achieving schools, "we oppose doing so with the heavy-handed top-down approach described in this bill."
Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford and co-chairman of the committee, said the effort to turn around low-performing schools might be more successful if the approach involved "more collaboration and less dictation."
Based on his discussions with Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, Fleischmann said, he thought Pryor might be "open to tweaking that section of the bill to set up a more collaborative process."
"This administration had very little time to pull together a long list of proposals," Fleischmann added. "We, as an assembly, have the time now to re-examine that first draft, to think through which parts work and which parts could use some tweaking."
Earlier in the hearing Wednesday, Pryor deflected calls for delaying some of the proposed education reforms, saying the time for reform is now.
Teachers union representatives and others have urged putting off some changes until the state's recently approved teacher evaluation system is fully operational.
But Pryor said any delay would be "at our peril. ... The children of our state have waited long enough," in some cases trapped in schools that have "stagnated."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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