The last round of federal stimulus money for education was billed as desperately-needed funding to preserve teachers' jobs, but a survey suggests many towns are saving the money for the future--and hundreds of classroom positions remain empty.
Schools across the state shed about 1,500 teachers going into the current school year, and even with the last-minute $110.6 million infusion from the federal government to help hire back some of these teachers, a limited number of districts actually did so.
The survey, completed by 85 of the state's local superintendents--roughly half--found just nine districts plan to spend all of the extra federal stimulus money this school year. Thirty-five--more than 40 percent--are saving the moey for next year. The rest are either spreading the money out over both years or haven't decided, according to the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.
"It just makes sense to save it. Our schools have a much grimmer budget picture next year," East Hartford Mayor Melody Currey said about the $2.4 million her school district received in September. The town's 7,000-student district has cut 68 teaching jobs in the past two years, reduced afterschool programs and increased class sizes.
"I know that going into this year we were down by 1,500 (teaching) jobs in the state. Yes, it's not quite that bad now because of this money, but we have still lost a significant amount of jobs," said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of CAPSS.
The state Department of Education reports that during the first quarter of the current school year, 376 teaching jobs were created or saved by the federal education jobs money.
When local districts in Connecticut received the $110.6 million in stimulus money, the U.S. Department of Education had a recommendation: Spend it this school year.
"I am excited that we are able to provide these essential funds quickly to help ensure that students have the teachers and support they need to succeed in school this year," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote to Gov. M. Jodi Rell and school officials.
But schools were given the option to save the money for next year, and many did so, fearing even tougher budget time ahead.
"The economic climate makes it a necessity to hold onto that money," said Hamden Superintendent Frances Rabinowitz, who said the district will spend the bulk of the $1.4 million it received next school year. "The resources of the town are very limited and I am not hopeful the state will be able to send any more money our way."
Educators statewide remain worried about the 2011-2012 school year, when an earlier federal stimulus grant expires. That grant of about $270 million has been used to prop up state school aid, accounting for about 14 percent of the state's Education Cost Sharing grant, the major source of state aid to municipalities.
Although both major party gubernatorial candidates have pledged to maintain local school funding, despite the massive deficit facing the state, educators and municipal officials are not confident they will be able to follow through.
"No one thinks that's actually going to happen," Cirasuolo said, as lawmakers must close a $3.3 billion deficit for the coming fiscal year. "Most communities are bracing for a reduction in funding."
For East Hartford the reduction is expected to be almost $6 million if that $270 million gap is not filled.
"We have to be prepared. I am a realist," said Currey, explaining why East Hartford decided to save all of the teaching jobs money they received for next school year.
But in other districts like New Britain, officials say they have had no choice but to spend the money now.
"We are in desperate shape. This money is going to handle the crisis we are in now. ... There was nothing to carry over because we needed the money now," New Britain Superintendent Doris J. Kurtz, said about the $4.3 million spent to save 54 teaching jobs this school year.
Cirasuolo said he worries most districts are going to be in dire conditions next year, just like New Britain is in now.
"It may be traumatic next year," he said.