As Danbury continues to attract new residents and businesses at a brisk rate, DPS also continues to add to its enrollment as more and more people find the city a safe and affordable place to live.
DPS currently educates 12,000 students in its 19 schools, a number that continues to increase annually. Demographers estimate that an additional 750 students will join the district over the next five years. We have always embraced growth in our schools, as it results in our ability to offer more programs and opportunities than most area districts.
However, as the district continues to grow, it is becoming increasingly challenging to meet these demands and continue our successes without the resources necessary to accommodate a growing student population and mandated services we must provide. The funding gap has become substantial enough that we are falling short in counselor caseload ratios, investment in curriculum, and critical infrastructure required to maintain accreditation and account for this increase. We cannot correct these imbalances through hard work alone.
Some of the critical issues we currently face must be dealt with this fiscal year. Danbury High School is under an accreditation watch due to compliance issues that required reinstatement of $1 million in staff and curriculum to remedy these deficiencies. At the high school, there is currently one guidance counselor for every 400 students. At all levels, there is a dearth of social workers, ESL teachers, and other professionals. While we are struggling to maintain appropriate class sizes, there are 25 students in a classroom in some of our schools and an increased enrollment will only push those numbers higher. We simply cannot meet our goals with a reduced budget.
In the last ten years, the Board of Education has made incremental requests to the city designed to responsibly address increased enrollment and operating costs; these requests average an increase of 5.3% each year. The average increase of 1.8% we’ve received has not kept pace with the increase of our costs, and that in turn has forced programming cuts.
It is imperative that we keep pace with contractual increases and also prepare for the influx of new students. If we sacrifice our current operating budget for any reason, DPS will not be able to meet its obligations to students. There are current plans to expand Ellsworth Avenue School to handle increased enrollment. DPS also seeks to build the Career Academy on the city’s Westside. This grade 6-12 school is expected to hold 1,400 students, which will greatly relieve pressure on the middle and high schools. However, both expansions will require supplemental staffing and additional city investment.
In order to make these projects a reality, we must plan forward with the expenses of staffing and curriculum. The Board’s budget this year included a multi-year affordable approach to support this plan, as opposed to saddling taxpayers with the full bill when the school is ready to open. If this City’s budget stands, these projects will create a debt situation for future generations.
While the mayor has pointed out that the district has received federal grants, those grants are by and large specific one-time funding and/or grants that expire. These funds are allotted for specific use and do not support the operating/recurring expenditures that must be supported with recurring revenue sources. ESSER funds are intended to keep schools safe and manage learning loss and social/emotional challenges of the pandemic. This money does not cover contract increases and teaching salaries, nor is it a fiscally responsible source of funding to meet our increased needs, which will be here well beyond the next few budget cycles. Additionally, DPS is eager to return all students back into the schools, as opposed to remote learning, and a portion of the ESSER funds have been earmarked to facilitate this while maintaining social distancing and taking other required measures.
DPS respectfully requested $149 million, a $13 million increase over last year. Recognizing the impact of the pandemic, and after receiving additional funds from the federal government, we reduced our funding request by $4 million, applying ESSER funds to whatever parts of the budget were permissible. Without the balance of city funds to cover the increased cost of operating, we will be forced to make cuts at a time when we are struggling to stay afloat.
We have to face facts: unlike nearly every other municipality in Connecticut, DPS has been growing at a rapid pace. The funding that supports critical infrastructure and operations has not kept pace, forcing the district to make significant cuts. There are a lot of great things ahead for the City of Danbury as it grows at an unprecedented rate and welcomes new residents and businesses. DPS is an essential part of managing and supporting that growth and success.