Bridgeport — To illustrate how unfairly Bridgeport schools are funded by the state, the city’s mayor and school officials Thursday shared a tale of three cities. Their audience couldn’t have been more important: The panel of state officials responsible for adjusting the highly criticized funding formula.
“I want to point out how Bridgeport is even different from New Haven and Hartford,” Mayor Bill Finch said, opening a meeting at Bridgeport Regional Aquacultural Science and Technology school Thursday evening. “No one is fully funded, but Bridgeport is less funded than any other city… We need your help in correcting that.”
His main argument: Hartford and New Haven, which have about the same number of students and student needs, receive significantly more funding per student than Bridgeport.
The state gives Bridgeport $7,810 per student, while it gives Hartford nearly $1,000 more per student, and New Haven gets more than $200 per student.
Finch preceded a long line of residents and parents from his city and Norwalk, all voicing the same message to the state panel: increase funding.
“Please I beg you, send money this way so our kids get an equal share,” said Camilla Villaroel, a parent of six children in Bridgeport schools. “Bridgeport needs it.”
But members of this panel Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has asked to recommend to him ways fix this “broken” system by October aren’t sure where the money would come from.
“We don’t have unlimited funds…. But I appreciate everyone’s frustrations,” said Ben Barnes, Malloy’s budget chief and co-chairman of the panel. “The chances of an increase that will satisfy all the speakers here today is zero, but the chances of an increase are very good. I hope we can do that. It’s a real challenge.”
The state spent $3.7 billion on education this past year, about one-fifth of its total budget. If the state’s existing funding formula is to work as intended, Connecticut needs to spend at least $724 million more each year, according to top state education officials.
The state’s largest teachers’ union, the Connecticut Education Association, says that shortfall is closer to $1.5 billion, or $5,300 per student in the state’s poorest districts.
State officials did boost state funding for education by almost $100 million for the coming school year. Over the previous seven years, state funding for education has increased by $270 million a year.
But more is needed, leaders say, because politics has often determined how much funding a community needs, rather than student need. A proposal Malloy made earlier this year to more accurately measure poverty in a school district, and direct more money to those districts, failed to become law. Legislators said they wanted this panel to finish its work before making changes.
This is hardly the first administration that has vowed to address the way public schools are financed. It’s been a theme, but never done, among so many task forces and officials over the years that frustrated municipal leaders turned to the courts for help.
The Connecticut Supreme Court recently ruled that the state is responsible for providing an “adequate” education, and sent the case to the lower court to determine if the state’s current level of funding is sufficient. If state lawmakers fail to adjust the formula and deal with the funding shortfalls, a Hartford Superior Court judge could determine how much the state must spend on education.
“Connecticut is definitely the state where geography is destiny,” said Dianne Kaplan DeVries, the leader of the coalition of municipal leaders that is suing the state. DeVries is project director of Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding. The court case is slated to be heard in 2014; DeVries said the Malloy administration has not reached out to them to discuss settling the matter before that.
“This appalling disregard for poor, minority, immigrant and disabled students has simply got to end… We’ll see you in court,” she told Malloy’s budget chief and other members of the panel.
Sen. Toni Harp, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s budget-writing committee and a panel member, said during an interview that although court intervention would be embarrassing for the state, it might not be such a bad thing.
She said the state’s hands are significantly tied as far as spending more for education because of constitutional budget spending limits. A court order would exempt new school spending from these limits, as is true of any state spending to help distressed communities like Bridgeport. Besides grants to poor communities and spending to comply with court orders, spending cap rules also exempt payments on bonded debt. About one-fifth of this fiscal year’s $20.5 billion state budget involves spending for cap-exempt purposes.
The current state budget is $86.4 million under the spending cap. To carve out a new exception to the cap, and allow for spending over the current limit, 60 percent of legislators would need to approve the exception and Malloy would have to sign it into law.
“It’s an awful thing,” Harp said. “We should be able to do this on our own will. But if we can’t do it, if the court forces us to do it, it creates spending opportunities that may not exist otherwise,” she said.
After the meeting, panel leaders noted to one another some of the funding anomalies in state funding of education.
Why does one particular district get more funding?
“They had a strong delegation,” Barnes explained, in a discussion of Stamford, Bridgeport and Norwalk among panel members.
Harp said West Hartford gets more per student than Norwalk, arguably an unfair allocation.
“We need to look at how pervasive the funding system has come. When I heard about Norwalk getting less than West Hartford, I thought, ‘Well how in the world did that happen’,” she said.
While the panel intends to determine out how to more fairly disperse the state’s funding by its October deadline, several panel members said they don’t see how it could be done without new funding.
“I don’t think we can politically take money away from one community to give to another. We have to come up with a new pot of money,” Harp said.
And that seems to be the direction this panel is headed, with two subcommittees recommending increased funding for the state’s agriscience and regional magnet schools in addition to the traditional public schools.
Reporter Keith M. Phaneuf contributed to this article.