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Federal Aid Just In Time For Some Connecticut Schools

New Britain And Norwich Among Connecticut Systems Hoping To Bring Back Laid-Off Teachers

By AMANDA FALCONE

August 11, 2010

On Monday, New Britain school Superintendent Doris Kurtz announced the final toll from a bruising, monthslong struggle to cut her budget: 112 education positions would be eliminated through layoffs and attrition. Class sizes would increase considerably.

A day later, she found out that Congress had given final approval to an aid package that would send $110 million to Connecticut and that she should be able to hire back some laid-off teachers.

The money was part of a $26 billion appropriation that includes $10 billion to save or retain teaching jobs, which have been subject to severe cuts nationwide as school systems struggle with reduced resources stemming from the worst recession in decades.

The remainder of the money is supposed to retain or save the jobs of police officers, firefighters and other government workers. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the aid bill Tuesday and President Barack Obama quickly signed it into law.

Of the money for teachers, $110.4 million will be given to Connecticut. It could provide for between 1,000 and 1,300 teaching positions statewide, said state Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy. He said Connecticut saw a reduction of about 700 teaching positions last year and expects to lose the same amount this year.

The education department will oversee distribution of the money and Murphy said it's currently working on a formula to determine how much each school system receives.

"This will help some of the districts," said Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. "They will do the best they can."

Since the bill was signed, Kurtz has wasted little time making preparations. By Wednesday, she had already made a priority list of teaching positions in case she gets the money to reinstate them. She said her focus was on elementary school teachers because they set the foundation for reading and because younger students also need more attention.

Throughout the country, school systems like New Britain are struggling to keep their staff and their services in place as funding fails to keep up with rising expenses, leaving little room for new initiatives. The new federal aid package is a lifeline.

The Norwich school system is also eager for the new federal assistance. The schools have given layoff notices to about 70 employees, including 25 teachers and two administrators. The town has already closed two school buildings to save money.

As in other places, class sizes are set to increase in Norwich. The town will begin to offer split classes that are composed of students in two different grades.

Norwich students start school Sept. 7, later than most in the state, because of a building project. The later start date could be beneficial, said Superintendent Abby Dolliver, noting that she wants to try not to move students around too much once school starts. But if teachers are rehired, moving students and teachers around will be inevitable, Dolliver said. With two schools now closed, there is little free space, she said.

Despite logistical concerns, Dolliver says rehiring teachers is important and she will make it work.

A boost in funding regardless of how much is always welcome, but educators noted that one-time financial shots do not solve the underlying problem.

There is always a concern about education budgets, especially when the state is facing a large deficit, said state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D- Meriden, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee, adding that he is particularly concerned about rising class sizes because of teacher layoffs.

Connecticut educators are not blaming the financial woes solely on the bad economy. They say the problem is deeper and that there must be a change in how education funding is distributed. They also say government mandates must be funded.

But in the absence of any changes to the way the state distributes education dollars, Kurtz said school systems like New Britain are relying more on other funding sources, such as federal funding and private grants.

The need for money is so great in New Britain that Kurtz is not even concerned that classrooms might be reorganized after the start of the school year to make room for more teachers. While she hopes the money will arrive before students start school Aug. 30, Kurtz said the important thing is that the funding gets to the district and is used to improve its schools.

"We are used to making accommodations when we get money," she said. "We're ready to move whenever the money comes."

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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