This story was updated with additional information on Oct. 9.
A considerable amount of the $132.9 million the state provided the lowest-performing districts to pay for improvements like extending the school day or offering free preschool was “inappropriately” used last year to close budget deficits districts were facing, state education leaders said Wednesday.
Several districts also have informed the State Department of Education that they did not spend a sizable portion of the money and plan to use it in the coming years. New Haven Public Schools did not spend $2.6 million of its grant, which is more than any district. Hartford didn’t spend $1.4 million and Waterbury $1.9 million.
Statewide, 7 percent of the funding provided went unspent. The department was unable to provide how much went to close budget deficits.
“The board is aware of a couple of examples that have been brought to our attention of extreme misuse,” State Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell told members on the State Board of Education’s Legislation and Policy Development Committee.
“Those funds are not being used in accordance with their plans and spent to ensure the education reform needs are being met,” said Kathy Dempsey, the budget chief for the State Department of Education. “What we are seeing is a shifting to the operating side. They are covering holes in their budgets.”
There are 30 school districts — known as Alliance Districts — that received this grant, and funds ranged from Waterbury’s $19.1 million last year to East Windsor’s $307,000. (See how much each district received here.)
This year, districts are slated to receive $148.7 million from this grant.
State officials said one district only spent half of the funding provided and several spent only 80 percent on the promised reforms.
A spokesman for Bloomfield Public Schools said the reason the district did not spend 50 percent of its grant in the time frame set up by the state was because the funding goes to pay for a summer “Extended Year” program for nearly 600 students, a key part of its effort to improve student performance. Because the state’s fiscal year ends just as summer is beginning, the funding is spent shortly after the next fiscal year begins.
“Bloomfield Public Schools invests 98 percent of its state Alliance Funds in programs and student-services connected to education reform,” spokesman Stan Simpson said. The district intends to spend its grant in the fiscal year in which it is received in the future, he said.
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Robert Rader, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said during an interview that school leaders are working to carry out the reforms they promised when the funds were provided.
“Boards are doing their best to carry out what they are supposed to be doing,” he said.
School districts have been struggling to balance budgets as the state slowly recovers from the recession. A lawsuit set to go to trial in January also alleges the state is chronically underfunding education overall.
“Obviously, times are still tough,” said Rader, pointing out that districts have had to delay a number of improvements since they don’t have the necessary funding.
How much districts have to spend on new programs and reforms has been unclear since Gov. Dannel P. Malloy first got the legislature to approve this initiative.
The Democratic governor’s previous education commissioner signaled in 2012 that some of that money could pay for existing programs in danger of closing because of budget shortfalls.
“The substantial majority of conditional funding must be reserved for new reform efforts, or the extension of existing reform efforts, that are specifically designed to improve student achievement,” Pryor wrote to officials in the state’s 30 worst-off districts.
Three years later, the governor’s new education commissioner said it is essential that nearly all the money is being spent in the year for which the state is providing the funds. She placed a proposal before the board that would require 97 percent of funding be spent on the promised reforms in the year it was provided. It was reviewed Wednesday by a board committee.
“We are still finding that districts are carrying forward asmuch as 50 percent of their current funding into the following year and in certain cases using it to support anticipated funding shortfalls. The most critical impact of this is that important parts of their approved plans to improve local education opportunities are either not being carried out or greatly delayed,” the proposal states. “The impact of this proposal is to provide greater assurance that the state’s significant investment in education in our neediest districts is being directed to the efforts most likely to achieve a positive impact on students’ educational outcomes.”
The proposal will be brought to the full state board of education and also submitted to members of the General Assembly.