Magnet school costs strain state, local budgets

As parents strolled among rows of displays at a recent magnet school fair in Hartford, those who stopped at a booth for the city’s Classical Magnet School heard an appealing sales pitch.

Tim Sullivan, the school’s high-energy principal, told them about the prep-school atmosphere at Classical Magnet, a place where college-bound teenagers study Latin, read Shakespeare and put in long hours of homework.

“Private school quality at a public school price,” he said.

Tim Sullivan

The prospect of a free, high quality education has obvious appeal for parents and students hoping for a spot at one of Connecticut’s many public magnet schools, but the rising cost of running these popular, specialized schools is raising new disputes over how to pay for them.

Magnet schools such as Classical, drawing a racially mixed student body from cities and suburbs, have been the key strategy in Connecticut’s effort to comply with the Sheff vs. O’Neill court ruling on school desegregation in Hartford. Now, however, their cost – combined with the state’s worsening financial crisis – has pushed state and local education budgets to the brink.

Funding for magnets is based on a dizzying hodgepodge of financial arrangements that perplex educators, pit towns against one another, and stir a chorus of protest. Some magnets charge tuition to the hometowns of non-resident students while others do not. In some cases, the state pays two different school districts for the same students. Under pressure to comply with the Sheff order, the state pays larger subsidies to Hartford-area magnets than to magnets outside the region.

“The whole system is broken,” says state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan.

The issue boiled over last year when Hartford Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski sent tuition bills to suburban towns whose children attend Hartford magnets such as Classical, threatening to throw out students whose hometowns refused to pay. Later, he also threatened to refuse to pay for busing suburban students to Hartford.

The legislature stepped in, raising state subsidies for Hartford magnets, forbidding the city to charge tuition, and providing an emergency subsidy for busing. But educators say the problem is not fixed. Suburban officials, who still must pay tuition for other regionally-operated magnets supporting the Sheff case, have been hit with larger than expected tuition bills this year.  Adamowski, meanwhile, says the spiraling cost calls for an overhaul of the state’s strategy for magnet schools under the Sheff ruling.

“There’s a need for Sheff reform,” he said. “You can’t viably do this under the current system because it’s so expensive.”

The 1996 ruling by the state Supreme Court — ordering Connecticut to reduce the level of racial segregation in Hartford’s mostly black and Hispanic school system — led to an explosion in the growth of magnet schools with popular themes such as science, mathematics and the arts. When the legislature passed a law in 1996 promising to pay the full cost (later reduced to 95 percent) of building new magnets, the specialty schools sprouted not only in Hartford but across the state. In the 1995-96 school year, there were just eight magnet schools in Connecticut with about 1,500 students. Today, there are 61 magnets enrolling nearly 22,000 students.

Over the past two decades, the state has approved nearly $2 billion for dozens of magnet school construction projects, including more than $700 million for schools designed to meet the Sheff order in the greater Hartford region. That includes schools such as Classical, built for about $36 million, and Hartford’s Sport and Medical Sciences Academy, a state-of-the-art building that opened in 2008 for nearly $72 million.

With features such as extra arts or music programs, the latest technology, longer school years and lower class sizes, magnet schools also cost more to run than most other schools. An analysis of state data shows an average annual cost of $12,845 per pupil at Sheff-related magnets in the greater Hartford region, about $2,500 more than the overall statewide average for public schools.

Last fall, as the legislature finalized the state budget, lawmakers called for a halt on new magnet school construction outside of the Sheff region and ordered the state Department of Education to develop a comprehensive statewide magnet school plan by next January.

Magnet school budgets

“There’s been a real growth spurt in magnets, and it’s probably a good time to take a breather,” said state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee.

As the number of magnet schools grew, so did a piecemeal approach to funding them. The financial formulas are so numerous that even many educators do not understand them, says David Title, superintendent of schools in Bloomfield. “I do not think there is a more complex and misunderstood topic,” he wrote in a recent paper summarizing the issue.

Consider, for example, the two different methods of funding of magnet schools in the Hartford region. Some are part of the city school system while others are operated by the by the Capitol Region Education Council, a regional agency known as CREC.

The city’s magnets, such as Classical, operate under the city budget but get a $12,000 stipend from the state for each suburban student they enroll. The CREC magnets get $9,695 per student from the state but can charge tuition to local districts to make up the remaining cost of running the schools. With state funds limited, tuition at many of those schools rose sharply this year, ranging from $2,517 to $4,950 per student.

Because school districts cannot control tuition or limit the number of students who choose magnets, the schools are “potential financial money pits,” Title wrote.

In Bloomfield, where one of every six students left the district to attend magnet schools this year, the tuition to CREC magnets was at least $100,000 more than anticipated, he said.

Some critics complain that magnet schools in the Sheff region get more attention than others do – and more money.

This year, for example, while CREC and Hartford received increases in magnet school subsidies, other magnet schools did not. Regional agencies outside of Hartford got about $2,000 less per student in state magnet payments than CREC received. And when Hartford threatened last fall to end busing for suburban magnet students coming to city schools – a move that could have undermined requirements of the Sheff ruling – the state agreed to come up with an emergency grant.

“I want to find out how Hartford got $3 million just by saying they couldn’t afford the buses,” Pat Perugino, chairman of the Plymouth Board of Education, said at a recent statewide convention of superintendents and school boards.

Adding to the cost of magnets is a provision that requires the state to pay twice for many magnet students. In addition to paying a subsidy to the magnet schools, the state continues to count magnet students in the formula for state aid to local districts even though they no longer attend their hometown schools.

State school aid can range from a few hundred dollars per student in wealthier suburbs to thousands of dollars per student in the state’s poorest cities.

Adamowski, the Hartford superintendent, says that paying two different school districts for magnet students “is terribly bad public policy.” A New Britain student attending Hartford’s Classical Magnet, for example, costs the state $12,000 in the magnet subsidy, $1,400 in busing costs and counts for another $6,733 in New Britain’s state aid formula – more than $20,000 in all.

Some critics, including Adamowski, favor a system that would eliminate double payments by linking state aid directly to each student, sending the money to whatever school the student attends – a magnet, a charter, a technical school or the local neighborhood school, for example. That idea – allowing the money to follow the student – is the central recommendation in a recent report by the New Haven-based school reform group ConnCAN. The report recommends giving added weight to needier students – those who speak limited English or come from low-income families.

Because the plan would produce winners and losers – bolstering aid for some schools while reducing support for others – it undoubtedly would be controversial.

“It would cause a political eruption in the state,” said Gaffey, the Education Committee co-chair. “I just don’t see it happening.”

Much of the angst over funding formulas can be traced to the mounting financial squeeze on state and local budgets, and Gaffey said the issue won’t be resolved this year “considering the dire straits right now.”

He said, “The hope for more money is like a pipe dream.”

Nevertheless, nearly everyone agrees that some type of reform is needed to change a magnet school funding process that many believe is unfair.

When Adamowski, the Hartford superintendent, sent letters last year threatening to charge tuition to suburbs or deny enrollment to their students, “kids and families were the pawns,” said Elizabeth Feser, superintendent of schools in Windsor. “That was the most disheartening thing. . . .That whole scenario eroded trust toward the whole magnet school piece.”

Cal Heminway, chairman of the Granby Board of Education, said, “The patchwork of funds is setting towns against towns, and that is a huge mistake.”

Against the backdrop of a state budget now awash in red ink, the prospects for a solution remain bleak.

Heminway said he would like to see school officials from Hartford and suburban towns meet with Sheff plaintiffs and state legislators to discuss the problem. But, he added, “I don’t think the legislature has a clue as to where they’re going to get the money for just about anything.”