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Suburban School Districts Worried About Paying Magnet School Tuition


August 14, 2009

Suburban school districts around Hartford are reeling from the possibility that they will have to spend hundreds of thousands of unbudgeted dollars to send students to city magnet schools.

The cost could exceed $1 million in Manchester alone.

State Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan warned the Hartford-area suburban districts last week that they might have to pay $4,600 per student in magnet school tuition unless the state increases funding to help Hartford run its magnets this year.

Anxious parents were relieved last week when McQuillan ordered Hartford to enroll 66 new students in the magnet schools. But he also warned the suburbs that the city cannot afford to pay the full cost of the magnet schools.

With no state budget in place, McQuillan cautioned, the suburbs must be prepared to pay tuition for all their Hartford host magnet students.

Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said that the warning amounted to a "fallback position" to ensure that Hartford could fund its magnets. It could become a reality, he said.

"If we can't fund the magnets through state subsidies, we have to look to other areas," he said.

The state Department of Education has proposed giving Hartford $3.5 million this year to cover its expected deficit for host magnets.

Although Gov. M. Jodi Rell's proposed budget does not specifically address Hartford's deficit, she does support the city's billing the suburbs for tuition, spokesman Adam Liegeot said Thursday. That's because, he said, the suburbs get to keep their full Education Cost Sharing money even when a student leaves for a magnet school.

Regardless of where the money comes from and how much there will be, state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D- West Hartford, said that the issue should be resolved within the next month or so.

Fleischmann, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee, said that there was sufficient funding from the state for magnet schools to prevent the need for local tuition payments in the General Assembly's proposed budgets, but that Rell has reduced those requests.

Ideally, Fleischmann said, the funding needed by Hartford will be provided and the towns that send students to the city won't be penalized for participating in the magnet program.

"Some people have tried to make Hartford the bogeyman, but I don't think that is the case. This is a state responsibility," Fleischmann said. "It's up in the air, but from where I sit, the state has a moral and legal obligation to fund the magnet schools."

Manchester, New Britain, Windsor and Bloomfield educators are deeply concerned that they will be on the hook for the tuition.

In Manchester, which expects to send 233 students to Hartford host magnets, the cost of tuition would be just over $1 million. The board of education has not budgeted for tuition for this school year, Superintendent Kathleen D. Ouellette said.

In Windsor, the cost of tuition for the 190 students that Windsor sends to Hartford magnets would be as much as $874,000, Superintendent Elizabeth Feser said. The news prompted Feser to call a special board of education meeting last week to discuss the issue with board members and parents.

"If we ultimately end up having to pay $874,000 for tuition, I don't know what the board will do as we do not have the money in the current budget to cover that cost," Feser said in an e-mail.

Feser said that the school board has taken a wait-and-see approach until the legislature passes a budget, and it told parents that they should continue to send their children to city magnets. But in Bloomfield, where the cost would approach $600,000, district officials are adamant that they will not pay Hartford. "We will not be paying because we didn't budget for it. At this point, we don't see how or why we would have to pay," said school board Chairman James Michel.

If New Britain is forced to pay the roughly $3 million cost of Hartford magnet tuition, it would equal the cost of salaries and benefits for about 60 teachers, Superintendent Doris Kurtz told the school board Monday night.

The school board voted unanimously to warn Rell, legislators and McQuillan that asking urban school districts to pay for their students' tuition at Hartford magnet schools would create huge budget deficits in a year in which many cities are already laying off teachers.

"It makes no sense to have other urban districts battling racial, ethnic and socioeconomic isolation while the state and courts take a singular approach to this urban crisis," school board President Sharon Beloin-Saavedra said in a statement Tuesday. "Desegregating Hartford should not intensify the segregation of other communities such as New Britain."

Christopher Leone, director of Hartford's Regional School Choice office, said that sending school districts are inflating their actual costs because those communities still receive Educational Cost Sharing money from the state.

He said that ECS funds should be put toward the tuition that Hartford is charging to make up the difference between the $6,730 that it receives for each suburban student and what it costs to educate them.

Suburban educators say they do not always get all of the ECS passed back to them by town leaders. Also, they say, they have fixed costs that must be covered even if students leave for magnet schools.

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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