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School Officials Trying To Fend Off State Cuts

EDUCATION FUNDING

DON STACOM

December 29, 2008

Hoping to minimize the damage from what's shaping up as a bruising budget battle at the state Capitol, school leaders from nearly 20 cities are trying to rally support from lawmakers before the tough decisions are made.

The Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents is hosting a legislative breakfast on Jan. 15 to promote its goal of preserving state education aid and suspending some costly, unfunded state mandates.

The state education board earlier this month adopted a set of potential budget cuts that could chop Education Cost Sharing aid to school districts by $230 million when the new fiscal year starts July 1. Community leaders across the state have warned that they can't absorb such a large cut, especially when they're under severe pressure to hold down local taxes.

Philip Streifer, chief of Bristol schools and a member of the urban superintendents group, has been an outspoken advocate of suspending state-imposed expenses such as in-service training for teachers until the nation's financial spiral levels out.

"One solution is to look at those mandates," Streifer said last week. "The state board voted without even considering mandate relief."

Municipal leaders have been meeting with their legislative delegations to press for protection of ECS funding. The urban superintendents group will hammer that message, too, along with its support for easing mandates.

State Rep. Frank Nicastro, D-Bristol, said he'll attend the breakfast to support the interests of mid-size cities.

"It's our responsibility to protect all of the students. They all deserve a good education. With no disrespect, sometimes the big cities get more of the attention," Nicastro said.

Even schools in affluent communities are coming up on a three-part budget crisis. Costs for staff, insurance and special education are rising, but state aid is endangered and local taxpayers are largely unwilling to shoulder substantial tax increases.

"Avon and Bristol are facing the same issues, just in different ways," Avon Superintendent Richard Kisiel said after the state school board's controversial vote.

Avon gets little help from state grants, but is hit hard by state mandates, Kisiel said. Town leaders are asking educators to hold spending flat next year, but it would take roughly a 6 percent boost just to provide the same services as this year. Kisiel acknowledged that local taxpayers are under pressure, too.

"We're a professional/management-oriented community where people have lost money in investments, where their jobs are on the line," he said.

Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell is expected to propose a two-year budget for 2009-11 in early February, and the Democratic-dominated General Assembly will then begin negotiating modifications or large-scale revisions.

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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