Bloomfield — With a trial underway to determine if the state is meeting its obligations to poorer school districts, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy came here Tuesday to celebrate the turnaround of Bloomfield High School, where test scores and graduation rates have climbed significantly over the past five years.
“We can do things to turn around the results in our schools when we get everybody pulling in the same direction,” Malloy said during a celebration in the school’s newly renovated library. “What’s happening here in Bloomfield could happen just about anywhere.”
Malloy, a Democrat beginning his sixth year in office, promoted his administration’s approach to education, particularly a focus on identifying and increasing support for troubled districts, as much as the progress recorded in Bloomfield, a racially diverse suburb of Hartford with a high school system that is predominantly African-American.
Overall, Connecticut’s graduation rate is now 87 percent, an increase of 5.7 percentage points since 2010, he said. The national rate is 82 percent. School suspensions and expulsions are down 17 percent from the 2009-2010 school year to 2013-2014.
“We have miles to go. Don’t get me wrong,” Malloy said, but he added, “It may be time to celebrate some of our successes.”
One of 30 low-performing school systems designated by the state four years ago as Alliance Districts targeted for extra funding, Bloomfield is one of the few districts that has made steady progress in all of its schools, according to a study last year by the Connecticut Council for Education Reform.
“You have stayed the course,” Malloy told students and educators in a library decorated with a banner carrying the same marketing message the school system has posted on two highway billboards, “Raising the Bar is Taking us Far.”
But some education leaders say they can’t afford to do some of the things Bloomfield has accomplished. The town of Bloomfield has spent $95 million in recent years to renovate all of its schools, and it spends more than most districts in the state on education, $19,724 per student.
In a trial of a school-funding lawsuit in Hartford Superior Court, the superintendent from East Hartford testified his district has opted to fill librarian positions with uncertified paraprofessionals, textbooks are decades old, and construction projects are delayed because the district can’t afford its share of the costs.
“The reality is the 25 percent [town share] stops these projects from moving forward,” testified Nathan Quesnel, the school superintendent. “That’s a roadblock.”
But Malloy countered Tuesday that the state has funneled millions more to poor towns so they can afford to make targeted improvements and provide comparable services to those in wealthier towns. The problem, he argues, is mismanagement and a lack of will by local leaders to raise taxes.
“There clearly are disparities, and that’s why investing $173 million more since I became the governor is very important,” said Malloy. He noted that as mayor of Stamford, the post he held before becoming governor, he was part of the coalition suing the state.
“I think some districts have made mistakes. They’ve made wrong choices, and in those cases those districts need to be responsible for that. A lack of investment in school buildings in districts that were receiving very high reimbursement rates are hard to justify, quite frankly. You have to be willing to go to the voters and have a discussion about investment in education and the difference it will make in your community’s trajectory. I was never afraid to do that when I was mayor for 14 years in the city of Stamford and others can’t hide behind their inability or unwillingness to lead that discussion.”
Educators have testified during the school-funding trial that municipal leaders are hesitant to raise taxes in communities with many poor residents and where taxes are already among the highest in the state.
In Bloomfield, whose leaders are not members of the coalition suing the state, the district received its first boost in local funding in six years after a property revaluation in Bloomfield produced more revenue.
For the state’s part, Malloy promised to protect education funding despite facing a $500 million state budget deficit in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Malloy, who faces projected budget shortfalls in coming years, smiled when asked about the prospects of more education aid.
“It’s a little tough right now,” Malloy said. “It is my intention to protect where we are at the moment, and that’s my immediate goal. When the economy improves, hopefully more money will be made available.”
Capitol Bureau Chief Mark Pazniokas contributed to this report.