When we take a hard look at Hartford’s most neglected schools (and communities), it is impossible to ignore the years of half-hearted investment in the face of extraordinary need. It happens every day across the country; states and cities tell their school districts to “do the best with what you have.” The demoralizing message goes to superintendents, who pass it along to school principals, who, in turn, filter it down to teachers … and families. Budgets remain remarkably similar year to year – and some schools remain persistently underfunded. If Hartford can stop that kind of budgeting, it can be one of the few cities in America to stop pretending about children’s futures.
At last night’s District community budget forum, Chief Financial Officer Paula Altieri crystalized the situation. With flat funding, she said, “We’ve been on our own fiscal cliff for the past eight years.” Our question, then, is, if the fiscal cliff is a constant, when will we change how we allocate resources?
Board of Education Finance and Audit Committee Chair Craig Stallings has been vocal about welcoming any and all Hartford residents to attend and engage with upcoming discussions. That invitation extends to each of us; we at Achieve Hartford! are taking the finance chair up on his offer right now.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: Our system is perfectly designed to produce the results with which we have struggled for decades. So we must make different choices that not only change outcomes … but also change the system.
Areas of High Need Are Already Known: So Fund Them
It is no secret that many neighborhood schools fall below performance expectations in large part because of the immense concentration of need they face. If we know where the most vulnerable children go to school, and we make equity the goal, then funding must align with need. Period.
What does that mean for budgeting right now?
- It is time to face the fact that our current number of schools is unsustainable. We must restart the public conversation over the specific combination of building closures and school consolidation … and now – not next year. The Board of Education can decide on a smaller, smartly realigned set of school buildings, with the express purpose of providing higher-quality education than before. We don’t need to wait for another Equity 2020 process to launch into another quagmire or for a permanent superintendent to act as the savior. The entire city knows school consolidation must happen. Board Member Stallings has said we have 20 schools too many; CFO Altieri estimates we have seven too-many high schools. Enrollment trends matter. Favored school names can be kept; just in fewer buildings.
- Looking to students first. The Board must make similarly transparent and difficult decisions about the reorganization of central office for the purpose of downsizing. If there is a choice between directly funding children and teachers in the neglected North End, versus protecting central office staff, we must choose to fund the needs of students – especially if the community is expected to help make and accept tough decisions regarding school consolidation.
Also, in a plea reminiscent of past Superintendent Beth Schiavino Narvaez’s forewarning of what Hartford stood to lose (from $20 million in budget cuts), HPS Operations Manager for Athletics Nicole Porter-Blake this week delivered spreadsheets to Board Member Stallings’ Finance and Audit Committee, suggesting $12.2 million (or an alternative lower-cost budget of $5.2 million) is needed to provide middle and high school athletic programming on par with the suburbs. Right now, CFO Altieri says there’s $143,000 in the budget. We know there are a number of examples just like this, where needed services do not have their needed budget, and without drastic changes in resource allocation, there is no way the HPS tagline should be, “Every Child Thrives. Every School is High Performing. No Exceptions.”
The Bottom Line
When revenue increases are a dream – and the current best-case scenario is being “only” about $6.6 million in the hole (see the Courant article on that), we at least need to have a set of programming goals to drive budget decisions. That, it seems, is exactly what is missing. The budget remains remarkably similar to last year. Waiting for next year, when there will be a permanent superintendent and more time to engage the community, is a weak move. Making decisions based on a plan, as opposed to simply cutting 5 percent across the board? Far better approach.
What we are advocating for, approaching the 11th hour of the budgeting process, is to let necessity become the mother of invention.
Given where we’ve been for the past eight years and where we now are headed, hoping for more funding is a bad gamble.
The challenges facing our schools are not shrinking; they’re escalating. We must learn to do more with less.
Why wait to redesign the car’s engine we know must go twice as far on half the fuel?
Hartford leaders can start redesigning now, by making difficult but necessary cuts to central office staff and starting the school consolidation process based on facts already on hand.
If we don’t do this, we are once again only “pretend” budgeting, sending the age-old message to our neediest schools, that you won’t get what you need … so just do the best with what you have.