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It's Back To School, Where Budgets Are Tight

GRACE E. MERRITT

August 31, 2009

As students return to school, some are finding their classrooms a little more crowded, a favorite sport has been eliminated or they have to walk because their bus route was canceled.

The recession is leaving its mark on Connecticut's schools in ways big and small as districts cope with tighter budgets and uncertain state funding.

The state's public schools are opening with 1,200 fewer teachers, which translates into bigger classes in some towns, fewer high school electives and more work for the remaining teachers.

"I don't think it's any secret that what we're offering children statewide come September is less than what we were offering them last year," said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. "Some programs have been eliminated. The quality for education is going to be less than last June. There's no way around that."

East Hartford, for instance, cut 37 teachers, including 15 in elementary schools, to meet a 4.2 percent cut in its budget.

"We're going to do everything we can to make sure kids get a good quality of education, but it is going to have an impact on class size. Any time you make this kind of cut, it's going to have an impact," said Mark F. Zito, East Hartford's superintendent.

Some towns have been hit harder than others because the blow comes after years of cutting already bare-bones budgets. Class sizes in New Britain, for example, will increase for the eighth year in a row.

"Unfortunately for New Britain, we just have bone marrow left. We've been cutting into the heart of everything," said New Britain Superintendent Doris J. Kurtz.

Hartford schools shed 250 jobs including 100 teaching positions slashed office supplies, closed a middle school and eliminated some bus routes to save money.

"More students will be walking this year. We are trying to do more with fewer buses," Hartford schools spokesman David Medina said.

Even wealthier suburbs are taking a hit. Farmington High School, for example, dropped Latin, lost a teacher in every core subject area and cut its culinary arts program in half.

Simsbury eliminated some high school electives, most of them in business and technology education, to make ends meet.

"We tried to pick areas where enrollment was low," Simsbury Superintendent Diane D. Ullman said.

Athletics have not been spared, either. Many districts have dropped sub-varsity teams and cut scrimmages to the bare minimum. Others have started "pay-to-play" policies, charging students a fee to join a team, said Mike Savage, executive director of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the state still doesn't have a budget. As a result, school districts are not sure whether they can count on Education Cost Sharing grants, which fund a big chunk of their budgets, and other grants that help pay for preschools, special education, after-school programs and public transportation.

"We've been very patient, but we're pretty frustrated at this point," said Norwich Superintendent Pamela W. Aubin. "It does impede our ability to plan. I'm not going to recruit people when I don't know if I have the position."

School districts have been told they will get the ECS money funded at the same level as last year but are still uneasy without a final state budget.

They also worry about eroding new initiatives designed to improve student achievement.

When Hartford made its budget cuts, school leaders took pains to try to protect fledgling reform programs, such as the new open-themed schools, aimed at shrinking the district's achievement gap.

"We've been nibbling around that and trying to keep that core reform still intact," Medina said.

School principals are feeling especially squeezed.

"There's a great deal of pressure being brought to bear as a result of No Child Left Behind and national testing," said Savage, the CIAC executive director who also runs the Connecticut Association of Schools.

"Principals are trying to balance how to provide resources to service those who need additional help and, at the same time, not take away from those kids who are doing well. It's a balancing act that they are totally frustrated over."

Many districts, not surprisingly, have kept a lid on capital improvements. Southington's maintenance crew spent much of the summer painting schools as a low-cost way to freshen things up, said Sherri DiNello, business and finance director for Southington.

Some have joined consortiums, sometimes with other states or with private schools, to stretch their dollars when buying fuel, electricity and paper supplies.

Many school leaders fear it's only going to get worse next year. Federal stimulus funds might help soften the blow somewhat by providing money for certain programs this year, but many superintendents worry what will happen when those dollars disappear.

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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