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Hartford School Cuts Could Reverse Progress

Stan Simpson

October 18, 2008

As scare tactics go, this was a good one.

First, Hartford schools chief Steven Adamowski assures members of the city council and school board that he's not trying to play Chicken Little. The sky, he said, isn't falling.

But, he suggests, they'd better wear hard hats.

Adamowski on Wednesday laid out ramifications of potential budget cuts that would pretty much decimate the school system and set back his education reforms.

Those efforts received a significant boost this month from the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, an independent school reform organization. In its State of Connecticut Public Education report, ConnCAN gave kudos to Hartford for this year's performance gains in closing the achievement gap between the city's elementary and middle school students and their peers statewide. The gains, according to the organization, outpaced the state's by nearly double and were three times higher than what Hartford tallied last year.

In only his 18th month on the job, Adamowski can now use that outside assessment to make the case that he's beginning to move the needle. In a tough budget year, though, performance will be his most convincing argument for sustaining the current $284 million school spending plan.

The state is facing an estimated $267 million deficit and the city is looking at a $51 million shortfall over the next two years. With those kinds of gaps, the schools chief is rightfully concerned that investments in the state's lowest performing school district and poorest city may decline.

Coincidentally, New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein was in Bridgeport Friday, talking to a business group about the successful reform measures in New York and the need to financially support those reforms that are working.

With the recession, Adamowski projects a school budget deficit next year ranging from $4.3 million to $25.5 million. Those kinds of reductions, he said, would surely result in significant personnel cuts. Best-case scenario, he said, would be 60 jobs; worst-case, 345 jobs. The "most likely" scenario, he said, would be a cut of 188 jobs, 7 percent of the staff.

The last time a Hartford department warned the city council that drastic cuts could mean draconian measures, it wasn't bluffing. Two branch libraries were closed.

"I wanted to bring this to everybody's attention," Adamowski said Friday, conceding he hasn't come up with a solution yet. "It will require a legislative strategy as well as other defenses that we may take outside of that. I wanted to get the information out early and get everybody working on defenses that would allow us to get through this, while also maintaining the progress we're making in our reforms in closing the achievement gap."

The education allocations to municipalities are funded in large part by the state's income tax. When Wall Street sheds jobs, the reverberations reach into Connecticut's Fairfield County, which funds about two-thirds of the income tax.

Closing the achievement gap is a decade-long proposition. A bump in achievement could either mean progress that could turn into momentum or just an isolated blip.

"What we've seen with Hartford with this year's results is very encouraging initial progress," said Alex Johnston, ConnCAN's executive director. "It's a reversal of a seven-year decline in Hartford student achievement. And if that can be sustained, they can close the achievement gap within the next 10 years. ... To walk away from that game plan would be tragic."

And a frightening proposition for a struggling school system.

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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