(Below is my opinion and should not be construed as an official statement of any of the groups mentioned herein)
DISCLAIMER!!! I am going to do my best to be unbiased in my approach – but I am a Bielefield parent and a member of its Governance Council. The Bielefield “back-story” is needed to explain why this blog entry is topical to the entire district.
Bielefield School is one of a few Middletown schools that are required by the State of Connecticut to have a Governance Council. Governance councils are made up of a combination of parents, teachers, and un-affiliated community members, with its sole responsibility to act in an advisory capacity to the school principal. The school principal is the only non-voting member of the council, but ultimately decides whether or not to heed the advice of the council. At this time, it is not relevant to discuss the factors that the state considers when requiring a school to establish a Governance Council. Bielefield has one, and we are embracing it.
Last month we invited Superintendent Dr. Patricia Charles and Board of Education Chair Dr. Gene Nocera to join us for an open and candid discussion about Bielefield’s needs. We were trying to be proactive this year, before the budget is set, unlike the reactive nature we had last year, after the budget had been set. We asked what it was we could do, working in collaboration with the board, that would help bring the necessary funds to the district and then by proxy to Bielefield, to deal with program cuts, teacher cuts, overcrowding, etc. After a lengthy discussion and a deeper understanding from both sides – it was agreed that change needs to come from the top, and it was determined that the top was the State of Connecticut. We were encouraged to speak with our local legislators, and the Middletown Common Council, to begin forging relationships that will benefit our school.
Less than a month later, the Chair of the Bielefield Governance Council, Jill Garrity (also a second grade teacher at Bielefield) was able to secure attendees, State Representative Matthew Lesser and council members Tom Serra and Mary Bartolotta. The meeting started out as expected, with a short power point presentation about the school climate and continued into a discussion of our needs, and then, the tides turned.We were informed by Councilman Serra that we cannot expect to receive Dr. Charles’ 5.81 percent increase request, that we are facing some of the hardest financial times the city has seen in years, mostly due to the most recent revaluation of property in the city. (More on this later) It was implied, and admittedly so from Councilman Serra, that we have the State to blame for our financial woes when it comes to the finances available to the Board of Education. (More on this later too) And although the blatant disregard for state statutes began long before Rep. Lesser was born, somehow we were supposed to turn our blame throwers in his direction.
The conversation quickly turned to the smoke and mirror game of the Alliance Grant (yep… you guessed it, more on this later) and almost more concerning, the ascertain that Councilwoman Bartolotta gave us, that we (Middletown Schools) get 75 cents from every dollar that the city spends. This, by the way is a horribly miscalculated statement that this author wishes he had researched on the spot rather than hours later. (This will be my final, more on this later)Let me pause here to state the following. I have absolutely NO ill will towards any of our local politicians and would like to add, that these individuals knowingly and willingly entered into a room they knew could potentially turn into a “hostile” environment, shows me that they do have a desire to begin a dialogue. While I do have a fundamental difference in opinion with the majority power in this city when it comes to finances, taxes, bonding, and priorities, it is still a wonderful thing that we are allowed an opinion. I will always welcome the opportunity to have healthy discussions about the things we care about. It’s not the people, it’s the ideas.
But I digress… here are the “More on this later” items we need to discuss.1. Let’s start with the pink elephant in the room, our recent property revaluation. For those who have heard me speak to this before, I apologize for the repetition, but it needs to be said. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) has done studies that show the second most important factor considered when purchasing a home is the quality of the local school system. Following that theory, if we improve the schools system, people will want to move in to town. If people want to move to town, home values can go up due to supply and demand. If home values go up taxes go with it. If that happens, our Mayor and his supporters on the council can be known as the people that lowered tax rates in Middletown. Not a bad feather in their caps, right?
2. So, is there a portion of our financial woes that are a direct result from State? Is the Pope Catholic? Of course there is plenty of blame that can be and should be put on the State. We can start with unfunded mandates. We can look at cost of upgrading the common core curriculum. We can look at the way special education costs are reimbursed at levels far below levels that would be considered reasonable. We can look at the fact that the State Department of Education is made up of members with no practical knowledge or experience as educators in public schools. I am not saying that they don’t have a passion for education, but passion doesn’t make up for experience. My colleague on the board’s Budget Subcommittee, Middletown Board of Education member Ed McKeon, had recently done extensive research for a local intergovernmental meeting. As part of his findings it was shown that in 1977, Horton v. Meskill, decided that the system of funding by municipalities through local real estate taxes failed to guarantee equal access to quality education. The CT Supreme Court put the responsibility for fixing this problem in the hands of the legislature. Nearly 40 years later, it’s obvious that the legislature has not found a solution.
3. Now, the Alliance Grant, my favorite topic for discussion. First, the 30 lowest performing school districts in CT are considered to be alliance districts, and would qualify for funds via an Alliance Grant. 100% of the funds must go to the school district; the “substantial majority” of the funds must be used on functions of the grant. It is determined by the municipality what that “substantial majority” will be. Middletown's municipal government, despite recommendations from the State, has decided without question that 51% is considered a “substantial majority”. (The state recommends at 75 %.) Why is this important? Middletown's can use the other 49% to fund a portion of the budget that they allocate to the School Board. As an example, if the council agreed to give roughly 76 million dollars to the Board of Education in 2013/14 and there was roughly $2,000,000 awarded to the city/board for the Alliance Grant. The city basically used $1,000,000 to offset the $76 million, rather than offer the full $76,000,000 and allow the board to use 100% of the alliance grant for what it was designed for. Borrowing from Peter, to pay Paul.
4. Finally, for those of you who hung in there on this Blog (Thank you) – we were repeatedly told at the Governance Council meeting that the Middletown Board of education receives 75% of the annual budget. That didn’t sit right with me at all; if that were the case wouldn’t the bulk load of the personnel resources be located at Hunting Hill and not City Hall. But, I took it at face value, and honestly, the concept, although flawed, got us to an agreement. The books need to be looked at by as many decision makers as possible. And when approached, Dr. Charles assured me that anyone from the council or the Mayor’s office, the board of education or the public is more than welcome to review the budget and make recommendations and suggestions on ways we can stretch a dollar and make it work. But as a point of clarification – the 2013/14 fiscal year budget for the City is $135.9 million of which $76.47 million went to the School District. That, for those keeping score at home is 56% NOT 75%.
In closing, I get it. This is a marathon not a sprint. I can see the trees through the forest and I can see where we need to go and how we need to get there. We need to find a way to come to a happy medium. I see the value of coming together and working together for the common good of our present and our future. I understand that it is going to take time and we need to put our faith in our elected officials to do what we elected them to do. Many of us are willing to go along on that journey but in return we need a Band-Aid plan. We need a fix now, however temporary it might be. Hopefully we can make progress with the state and eliminate some of the burden on the local tax payers. But I plead that education become not just more of a priority, but THE priority. Lighting the bridge, and building gazebos can wait. The onus is on our elected officials, your constituents are watching. Fix the foundation before you decorate it, ok?
Middletown Parent, Bielefield Governance Council Member, Parent Member of the BOE Budget Sub Committee, and Former Candidate for Board of Education. (Husband and Father to a VERY understanding family)