Stimulus funds are essential to save teaching jobs, state schools chief says

The state’s top education official made a plea Monday for a renewal of federal stimulus funds to avert the loss of thousands of teaching jobs.

Connecticut has received $785 million in federal stimulus money for schools, but that money is scheduled to dry up in 2011, potentially resulting in massive layoffs for the 2011-12 school year, state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan warned.

“Without action by Congress to continue its support of our schools, we face dire consequences at the local level,” McQuillan said in a letter to members of the state’s Congressional delegation.

Even with the support of existing stimulus funds, school districts across the state are eliminating popular courses and after-school activities, cutting jobs and even closing some schools.

About 1,200 teaching jobs were lost in the school year that ends this month, said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. That figure could double in the coming school year and will be far worse the following year if stimulus funding ends, he said.

“It’s a serious problem,” he said. “I’m glad the commissioner is doing what he’s doing.”

The loss of stimulus money would leave state and local officials trying to fill a gap of about $350 million a year. “You’re talking about school districts being decimated,” said Patrice McCarthy of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

In his letter, McQuillan urged support for legislation proposed by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that would provide an additional $23 billion to schools nationwide to help avert layoffs. The legislation stalled in the Senate, but supporters remain hopeful it will survive as part of a supplemental appropriations bill in the House.

The proposal “can help save the jobs of thousands of teachers, principals, and librarians in schools in Connecticut and across the country,” said U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a co-sponsor of the Keep Our Educators Working Act.

“I’m pleased that Education Commissioner McQuillan is joining me to push for passage of this vital legislation, which will help preserve the jobs of so many Connecticut educators and keep class sizes small in the face of state and local budget cutbacks,” Dodd said in a prepared statement.

As many as 275,000 education jobs nationwide – more than 90 percent of the number of education jobs estimated to have been saved by the original stimulus package – could be lost in the coming year, according to a survey released last Month by the American Association of School Administrators.

The survey was a follow-up to an AASA report on mounting school budget problems that have been compounded by huge budget deficits in many states, including Connecticut.

Although the stimulus helped states offset some budget cuts, it “will not enable states and schools to return to the programmatic and personnel capacities they had before the recession,” the AASA report said. “The increasing budget cuts threaten the capacity of schools to deliver essential services and threaten the gains schools have made in student achievement and narrowing the achievement gap.”

In Connecticut, many of the state’s 166 school districts already have laid off employees and are bracing for more cuts.

In New Britain, for example, officials have projected as many as 130 layoffs, nearly 10 percent of the workforce. In Hartford, school officials are projecting 92 layoffs, including 49 teachers, about 3 percent of the workforce.

In New London, “We’ve already made some layoffs. Most have been literacy tutors,” said Superintendent of Schools Nicholas Fischer. Several more teaching jobs could be lost pending the outcome of a dispute with city officials over the use of a portion of the district’s state aid, he said.

Fischer said he is not optimistic about getting more stimulus money, but he called McQuillan’s letter a good idea. “We need to put it out there that there is a cost when you pull back the [federal] money. If the state can’t fill the gap, it’s a real loss,” he said.