The big ticket item in the Hartford schools’ budget is its 69 percent allocation to staff salaries. Hartford school costs increase by some $14 million annually and the projected cuts on the other side of the ledger, in State and City funding for fiscal 2018, likely will be around $6 million. That’s a $20 million problem.
If the budget is Hartford’s biggest issue, and the schools take up 55 percent of it, finding innovative ways to finance education is the most important thing happening. Governor Dannel Malloy has called for re-focusing aid toward the neediest cities, but that plan already has met stiff opposition from many of Connecticut’s 169 towns – and appears to be dead on arrival at the General Assembly. Negotiable? Maybe.
The legislature has until this spring to finalize the numbers, but it may not be able to resolve the disputes from towns that stand to lose funding as the more desperate conditions in cities are addressed.
Just as Mayor Bronin has called out the structural deficiency of Hartford’s revenue model, the District suffers in a structural quandary as well. Hartford’s is more dependent on State revenue (70 percent of its operating budget) than any school district in Connecticut – and also has the highest rate of poverty and one of the lowest amounts of taxable property in the state. In a budget forum last week, HPS Chief Financial Officer Paula Altieri laid out the facts above and went further to explain:
- Hartford has too many schools under-enrolled and must tackle this issue.
- The upward spiral of tuition expense, 455 percent in the past eight years, has to be addressed; Hartford pays for students to attend magnet schools and receive out-of-district special education services, a problem begging for a solution.
- The need to change stems not just from scarce resources, but also from the facts at hand: Hartford schools’ unique characteristics are costly: aging facilities, small schools and unique school models – all exacerbated by a broken State funding formula. “We shouldn’t have to beg for opportunities for our students; that should be their constitutional right,” CFO Altieri told the Wish School budget forum audience (albeit fewer than 20 people), February 7th (on video here).
- Both CFO Altieri and Acting Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez and her staff have been meeting with School Governance Councils and principals to develop needs assessments and set urgent priorities per school, which will be how the budget process will be modified this year.
- Each school will be charged with identifying “ingredients for success” and those will be factored in to the budget.
- Hartford Board of Education Member Craig Stallings, who chairs its Finance Committee, is seeking a joint budget session with City Council – and wants NRZs, town committees, the African-American Alliance, and other organizations engaged by an entire campaign for school funding. Moreover, Board Member Stallings did not mince words about the need to close schools and vowed to get residents to attend his committee meetings.
The Bottom Line.
While it has yet to go through the General Assembly sausage grinder, the governor’s 2018 budget proposal has the potential to change the scenarios, especially if the funding formula is improved to help those most in need. Even if the state formula does change and Hartford’s $20 million hole is plugged, it doesn’t change the fact that, structurally, the Hartford Public Schools must transform how it spends its money.
Our next District superintendent must have a track record of successful fiscal management and business-as-usual District spending must end, for as school leaders know, operationalizing equity requires fundamental change. The HPS tagline – Every student thrives and every school is high performing. No excuses. – must be more than an aspiration. For our part, Achieve Hartford! will be releasing next month a comprehensive list of operational changes Hartford can make to move our system closer to equity.