During the last recession, public schools across Connecticut shed nearly 1,300 jobs. More than half of those positions were held by teachers and the instructional specialists they work with.
Those reductions – 1.5% of the K-12 workforce statewide – were somewhat blunted by federal stimulus dollars that infused $540 million into Connecticut’s coffers to replace the 14% cut in state education aid.
With another recession coming – and predictions that its impact on state and local budgets will be far worse than the Great Recession – K-12 schools in the state are lined up to receive $111 million in additional federal aid.
Concern is mounting among educators that this aid will be used to plug budget holes in municipal budgets caused by the pandemic – rather than fund additional programs to help catch students up from the extended school closures.
“What I’m so worried about is that municipalities are going to see that coming and cut education budgets,” said Fran Rabinowitz, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents and former superintendent of Bridgeport. “There is learning loss across the board – some more profound than others – and we can’t alleviate that learning loss without resources. So don’t expect that you can just open up school and tell teachers to catch the kids up. I am really, really worried.”
Concern with how much funding school districts will have to recover in the wake of the pandemic is being expressed in states across the country, with cuts as high as 30% being floated in some places.
“These numbers are coming in and it’s looking so traumatic at this point,” Michael Griffith, a school finance expert told reporters during a webinar hosted by the Education Writers Association.
…Don’t expect that you can just open up school and tell teachers to catch the kids up. I am really, really worried.”
“This is looking to be a much more challenging situation than the Great Recession,” said Karen Hawley Miles, the president of Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit that works with school districts around the country. During recessions, she said, “Typically districts use the extra money to go back to the way it used to be, to backfill state and local budget cuts and preserve programs, services, and jobs.”
The history lesson: federal aid provided during economic downturns goes to close budget gaps, not expand school programs.
When the last recession hit, municipal spending on local schools dropped by $1 billion, a 12.3% drop, state data show. The state’s 10 poorest communities were hit particularly hard, with a 19.4%, or $308 million, reduction in local contributions. In the state’s 10 wealthiest communities, local contributions were reduced by 8.3% for a $63.2 million reduction.
Connecticut’s finances are stable for the rest of this fiscal year, which runs through June 30. The administration projects a $530 million deficit, but Connecticut has $2.5 billion in its rainy day fund.
But Gov. Ned Lamont has warned that state finances could erode by at least $1 billion next fiscal year, depending on the severity of the national recession. In addition, state pension and social service costs always escalate during severe economic downturns and administration officials anticipate this being a problem as well.
More federal aid to help stabilize the states’ finances does not have support from Congressional Republican leaders.
“The prospects of getting any more from the feds is cloudy at best,” said Lamont.
The governor hasn’t provided any clues yet about what types of cuts or revenue increases he would seek to offset those problems.
In a statement, the Lamont administration said it intends for the increased federal education funding to go toward providing additional supports for students during the pandemic, such as distance learning.
“This public health crisis has caused a great deal of economic and budget uncertainty across the country – including for our state, municipalities, and boards of education … We anticipate using those funds to supplement the unanticipated needs of school districts in responding to the COVID-19 virus,” the administration said.
But the administration has not yet determined whether it will allow local municipal leaders to cut how much they spend on education, and fill the gaps with any additional federal aid they receive.
“A public health crisis of this size, which has not been experienced in generations, will require us to remain flexible in the face of uncertainty. We have been and remain in communication with municipal leaders across the state on how to best combat this crisis and mold our recovery,” the administration said.
The school districts getting the federal aid …
During the last recession, Hartford Public Schools shed 260 teachers – a 15% reduction, state data show.
Only some of those reductions can be attributed to some of its public schools closing and students leaving for separately run charter or magnet schools.
Hartford Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, who was not the leader of the urban district during the last recession, is optimistic the additional funding this time will be used to increase programs for students who will be out of school for at least nine weeks – not fill municipal budget gaps.
But, she points out, the district was already facing a $20 million deficit in the fiscal year that begins in 10 weeks even before COVID-19 touched down in the state.
“I still have to figure out how to address that within the new context, at which will require extended day, extended the year” for students, Torres-Rodriguez said during a telephone forum hosted by the state chapter of Education Reform Now.
The federal Care Act passed by Congress in late March is expected to send her district $10.3 million in additional aid.
Bridgeport – the state’s largest municipality where city and school leaders are accustomed to grappling over funding levels – is set to get $9.1 million more.
The district was already facing a $9.5 million shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1.
“We are always struggling here in Bridgeport, every year with closing a budget gap, but I think it’s important that whatever funding that we are able to receive, we have to think about filling the gaps left by the crisis first and foremost before we can just let the city and other funding streams off the hook because we’re receiving money from the federal government in response to the crisis,” said Bridgeport Superintendent Michael Testani. “We know we need to fill the gaps left by the crisis, and whatever that looks like, whether it’s extended day programs, extended year program, Saturday academies…”
Bridgeport has been hit particularly hard by the virus. With 1,421 residents testing positive for COVID-19, it has the second largest number of infected residents in the state.
Mayor Joe Ganim expects the pandemic to deeply impact his budget because of the costs associated with responding to the virus, a potential dip in state municipal aid that can accompany recessions, and a downturn in property taxes paid to the city.
“It’s been devastating. There’s been no money, no direct relief yet,” Ganim said during a recent interview.
He isn’t ready to make any promises that he won’t try to reduce how much the city provides to the Bridgeport Board of Education since the school district will soon receive $9.1 million in additional federal aid. He said he thinks the city should be reimbursed by the school district for the extra money the city has paid this year for student computers and some of the school transportation costs.
“I think I will want to look at it,” said Ganim of the additional aid. “I’ll work with the superintendent to make sure that we meet all those needs and then support what is going to be additional need. … I think we have to make the staffing levels at least whole, or whatever whole was before this thing, and then look once things are whole if there are resources available.”
The mayor will surely face pushback from local school board members, however, if he tries to reduce municipal funding for city schools.
“We can’t look at this as a windfall that will get the city of Bridgeport off the hook. That would be wrong,” said Bridgeport School Board Member Joseph Sokolovic.
We can’t look at this as a windfall that will get the city of Bridgeport off the hook. That would be wrong.”
The federal government is leaving it up to local officials to determine how the money is spent. That’s because when Congress passed the CARES Act, lawmakers did not require the aid be spent providing supplemental programming, nor did they prohibit municipal leaders from using it as a substitute for town contributions to the schools.
“The funding made available today has very few bureaucratic strings attached and empowers local education leaders to do just that. I encourage them to focus on investing in the technology, distance learning resources, training and long-term planning that will help education continue for both teachers and students, no matter where learning takes place,” U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Thursday.
There is somewhat of a shield preventing municipal leaders from raiding the additional aid.
While the federal Cares Act does not require local districts to spend the $111 million on supplemental services for students, state law does require municipalities to spend at least the same amount on education each year. However, there are several exemptions that allow towns to reduce spending.
Also, Lamont has waived several laws through executive order since declaring a public health emergency on March 10.
When asked whether the governor plans to relax this law – called the Minimum Budget Requirement – his administration released a statement pointing to the need for “supplemental” programs for students, as well as at the need for “flexibility.”
Griffith, the school finance expert, said while there are very real concerns about deteriorating state education funding, property tax revenue won’t lag for some time since property values have not taken a hit – at least yet.
“We’re in a pretty good place locally and that’s stable. It’s just the state funding that we’re worried about,” he said. “In the downturn, back in 2008-2009, there was all this belief that this is extra money that states could use and districts could do some extra things with it. It really isn’t going to be that.”
He estimates the “vast majority” of the additional federal aid provided will be used to close budget gaps, not provide additional programs for those who have been out of school for weeks.
It is too soon to tell how this will play out in Connecticut, since districts are in triage mode right now trying to set up and perfect their remote learning programs. Funding debates will likely be saved for after the crisis is over, said Robert M. Villanova, the director of the University of Connecticut Neag School’s executive leadership program and former longtime superintendent of Farmington Public Schools.
“There are more immediate budget concerns on the front burner, because education and distance learning and planning for the next fiscal year are probably on horizon,” he said. “The immediate push is making sure that educational opportunity and moving ahead are real to every student.”
Curious how staffing levels have changed in your district? See the changes – by job title – by clicking here.
State budget reporter Keith Phaneuf contributed to this article.