Nobody wants to see this come down to "Budget vs. Children."
But -- as with most things these days -- it's a question of spend less or earn more. Either way, we need to face the fact that something has to give. I'm not just talking about the local school budget today. This is also about all the other programs -- outside of the classroom -- which help families and children in our community, and which receive funding from the state government.
On Thursday, the Middlesex Coalition for Children flexed its considerable political muscle by gathering nearly 100 local children's advocates to meet with seven of our area legislators at Middlesex Community College for a little "coffee talk." The event was co-sponsored by the Middlesex Area Interagency Council. Betsy Morgan, the founder and head of the Coalition, said that the meeting was a way to "lay the groundwork for our relationship with legislators, and to let them know how many committed people care about these issues in Middletown." She noted that it's a first step in this year's effort to communicate with state government -- and that the coalition will undoubtedly be visiting Hartford to testify as the legislative session gets underway.
In other words, this is how we lobby for what Middletown's children need.
First, let's talk about that number I mentioned of "nearly 100 children's advocates". I'm not exaggerating. I counted people I knew from the hospital, the soup kitchen, housing assistance, health care services, the arts, day cares, preschools and special needs programs. Not to mention many, many people who work for or in partnership with the schools, from Superintendent Michael Frechette to the support staff at our neighborhood Family Resource Center. Just about any program in Middletown that helps families was there. As several speakers noted, Middletown is unusually well-organized -- the Coalition has a monthly meeting that brings these organizations together, which makes for a sort of "one-stop-shopping" if you want to see who is working with kids in our community.
The morning offered testimonials from participants in the programs, starting with parent Francis D'Mello, who happens to be the owner of my favorite Indian restaurant in town (Udupi Bhavan out on Saybrook Road.) He spoke about the School Readiness preschool program and how it has helped his two young children prepare for kindergarten. We also heard from beneficiaries of Housing Basic Needs, Youth Services, Husky, and Adult Education and its G.E.D. program. Each of these programs gets some or all of its funding from the state, but the biggest nut is the item called "Educational Cost Sharing" (ECS), which is jargon for the amount of the local school budget that is covered by the state. Christine O'Grady, who moderated a portion of the morning and is a graduate of PLTI*, mentioned that Connecticut is among the worst in the nation when ranked by the percentage of educational costs that are paid for by local, rather than state, taxes.
Eventually, it was the legislators' turn. One by one, they outlined their support for funding for these programs. Like his colleagues, Senator Paul Doyle (Dem: Cromwell, Middletown, Newington, Rocky Hill, and Wethersfield) spoke about how there is a "whole new attitude" in Hartford. Although cuts will be made, he's hoping for a change in priorities in how we spend our resources. "Maybe we didn't have the guts before," he said, but now we have to make "radical changes." Doyle is the new co-chair of the Human Services Committee, which has oversight on many of the programs in the room.
Senator Tom Gaffey (Dem: Cheshire, Meriden, Middlefield, Middletown) is chair of the legislature's Education Committee. He encouraged the Coalition to lobby for relief from Federal mandates on education, like the frequent testing requirements of No Child Left Behind. Perhaps the Obama Administration can return to testing only every few years, which could free up a good chunk of money in local school budgets. This echoes what I heard at a recent Middletown Board of Education meeting -- everyone is looking to the multitude of "unfunded mandates", both federal and state, as a way to make some budget magic.
State Rep. Matt Lesser (Dem: Durham, Middlefield, Middletown) got the biggest laugh of the morning when he noted that he is ready and eager to help, especially as he has been assigned to both the Education and Public Health Committees, but that he ranks as 151st in seniority (out of 151 house members). He also noted that the state budget is facing a shortfall of about 18% over the next 2 years -- that's a sobering number.
State Rep. Jim O'Rourke (Dem: Cromwell, Middletown, Portland) isn't on any of the committees that directly oversee the education and social services programs in the room, but along with Senator Gaffey, he does sit on the powerful "Finance, Revenue and Bonding" committee, which can recommend funding for the capital needs for these programs. He noted that this battle between taxing and spending gets "won in the editorial pages and in public opinion." He specifically noted that "it's easy to call for cuts, so there will have to be some public support for raising revenues, or using the rainy day fund, or the people in your programs will suffer." He also warned that we should be on the lookout for cuts at the state level that just pass the buck to the local communities who then have to raise property taxes to pay for necessary services.
I thought the boldest move was made by State Rep. Gail Hamm (Dem: East Hampton, Middletown) who sits on the committees for Judiciary, Education and the Select Committee on Children. She is also the chair of Human Services within the Appropriations Committee. Rep. Hamm wrinkled the "we're all in this together" mood with a warning: she said that her biggest fear is that the budget crisis would "pit you all against each other" as the scramble to preserve funding escalates. For example, there are people in the room who support the new program to treat 16 and 17-year-old criminals as juveniles rather than adults. But it will cost $80 million in new funding to implement, which will have to be cut from somewhere else in the budget, so advocates for preschool or parenting support might want to give up on this juvenile justice initiative to save their own programming. (on the flip side I've been hearing Mayor Giuliano and Police Chief Baldoni complain about this new program, as it means we have to pay for significant renovations at the police station so juveniles and adults can be processed separately.)
She also mentioned that "RBA will be back with a vengeance." I had to google that one. RBA means "Results-Based Accountability", which looks at the outcomes of programs, not the process. It looks like she's predicting that funding will flow to programs that can show not just that they are serving numbers of people, but that the programs are actually changing the outcomes for these folks. Efficiency and efficacy:good. Overlap and duplication:bad. It's hard to argue with that.
There were also comments from Rep. Jim Spallone and Rep. Brian O'Connor, who represent other parts of Middlesex County. O'Connor, who works at the Chamber of Commerce, recommended that child advocates reach out and make partnerships with business, because that's the community that will be fighting tax increases as they face their own troubles this year.
The other Middletown legislator, State Rep. Joe Serra, was not able to be at the Coalition's breakfast. His committee assignments are Transportation and Judiciary. He also sits as chair of the Select Committee on Aging. (It's a small world, so I'll mention that his wife, Marie, is a teacher with PROBE, the Middletown schools gifted program.)
All in all, I was struck by how well positioned Middletown's legislative contingent is on programs affecting children, with four of our six local legislators having committee assignments that affect these services, and with chairmanships over Education and Human Services (although that may not help us when the Appropriations Committee decides on the dollars and cents.)
However the budget debate plays over the next few months, it's clear that the Coalition and the Interagency Council are not going to let services for local children go down without a fight.
*If you've noticed the impressive number of empowered parent-advocates in Middletown, it's partly due to the Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI), a year-long course which mentors parents, adopting them when they are newbie PTA members and turning them into full-fledged advocates for children, with a curriculum that mixes public speaking, life-coaching and awareness of government systems. Watch out for them!