District looks to state for solution to budget cuts
As the Danbury school district struggles to hold onto its hard-earned successes in building new schools, adding more classroom space and earning accolades for cutting-edge programs and students who successfully compete on a multitude of levels, it isn’t giving up its battle with the state to release the $30 million of annual funding that has recently been cut.
At a public hearing on Oct. 5, Superintendent Dr. Sal Pascarella urged residents to write letters to their state representatives, meet with local lawmakers and deliver personal stories of hardship at a legislative session. Those are the efforts that may get the attention that the Danbury schools need, Pascarella said.
Pascarella and Danbury Board of Education members joined with Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, Danbury City Council, state legislators and community leaders to address the challenges of being underfunded by the state. The meeting was also led by the non-profit Connecticut School Finance Project, an agency funded by grants from non-profit foundations that helps schools find solutions to state funding flaws. About 35 members of the public attended the meeting.
The group of nearly a dozen local lawmakers included State Sen. Michael McLaughlin, former Congressman James Maloney and Reps. David Arconti, Robert Godfrey and Jan Giegler. One of the issues, raised by Godfrey at the meeting, is that it will be difficult to get legislators from the overfunded towns to agree to reduce the amount of money that their towns are receiving.
“It’s going to take a whole community to get this done,” Giegler said. “We have a voice, but it’s not big enough.”
A point stressed consistently during the meeting was that while many districts are experiencing drops in enrollment, Danbury is unusual in that its student population increases on average by 120 students per year. There are 285 more students this year than in the 2014-15 school year.
Based on the Education Cost Sharing formula suspended by the state in 2013, DPS remains underfunded by the state 50 percent, which translates to nearly $30 million per school year. Because the state no longer adheres to the ECS formula, funding to school districts is now given out in “block grants,” or lump sums, some of which have been deemed inequitable because of how the grants are calculated. Some districts that receive more funding have greater tax rolls or a higher mill rate creating a larger tax base. Other districts have fewer expenditures for students learning English or students with special needs, but receive more funding based on other statistics and not necessarily need.
DPS currently has the seventh lowest per student spending in Connecticut at $12,684 per student and, therefore, relies heavily on local funding. The City of Danbury contributes $9,061 per student in tax dollars, or 70 percent, a figure that is nearly twice that of a similar district. New funding proposed under the ECS formula to be reinstated in 2016 cuts the funding that Danbury is entitled to by 50 percent. One of the state’s wealthier towns, Greenwich, is overfunded by more than 60 percent. This inequity is being challenged by many of the underfunded districts, including Danbury.
According to CT Finance Project, the ECS formula treats Danbury as a wealthy community, despite the fact that student poverty has doubled in the district over the past 10 years.
Despite its financial challenges, the Danbury schools have shown and continue to show great progress in many areas, from state-recognized programs at the high school and a newly opened magnet middle school that has students earning top prizes at the state levels, to an elementary school named top in the state and another elementary school being awarded as a “success story.”
DPS has increased its course offerings and programs at all levels, including career pathways and an Early College Opportunity at the high school. Increased funding at the state level would ensure the district’s sustainability in these continuing efforts.
The meeting resulted in a plan of action that includes bringing together committees to meet with state decision makers before December to stress that the state’s finance system is not treating Danbury equitably. The public was also asked to submit opinion letters to local news outlets and also to reach out to colleagues and local organizations to contact lawmakers.
The results of the meeting will be incorporated into a plan to be presented to local lawmakers who will help identify a solution in the 2016 legislative session.