On April 1, Mayor Dan Drew announced his proposed budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.
After months of analyzing needs and costs, the Board of Education requested a budget increase of 4.74%. This figure was down from a forward-looking number of about 8% that would actually bring progress to Middletown's schools. . But understanding the state budget crisis and local economy, the BOE worked hard to lower its proposed budget, and delivered a "do no harm" budget of 4.74%
In his budget, Drew allows for a budget increase of less than 1% ($700,000) for the Board of Education.
That proposed increase is an insult to the hardworking teachers and staff, the students, parents, residents and taxpayers.
Here are ten reasons why the mayor's proposed increase will do harm to Middletown schools, and why the Common Council needs to increase funding to a realistic level.
1. An increase of less than 1% will mean teacher layoffs. I've followed the budget process this year from the first negotiations in December 2015, and understand that after all the cuts, the only way to get to the mayor's number is to reduce the teaching staff and other staff. That means more crowding in schools that are already overcrowded, and an increased workload for remaining teachers.
2. An increase of less than 1% will mean cuts in sports, arts and other extracurriculars. Did you go to the all-city music festival Saturday? I hoped you enjoyed it, because with the mayor's proposed cuts, there may never be another one. Popular arts and music programs, as well as inclusive
sports like lacrosse and crew will all be affected. In fact academic programs, like advanced placement courses, and foreign language classes of all middle schoolers will not be able to be funded.
3. An increase of less than 1% fails to recognize that contractual obligations of the school district increase the budget of the Board of Ed in the upcoming year by more than 3%. Negotiated salary increases and costs for health insurance mean that if the Board is only granted a 1% increase, it begins its fiscal year 2% in the hole for those obligations alone.
3. An increase of less than 1% is based on misleading data about the Sodexo contract. The Sodexo contract for food and facilities services at the schools is and should be thoroughly vetted every year by the Board of Education. The mayor claims that Sodexo pays $800,000 a year in sales tax for supplies for the district. That number is wrong and misleading. The actual amount paid is closer to $40,000 and that number is far offset by the cost savings Sodexo achieves in bulk purchasing. In contracting with Sodexo, the board has insisted that all local union employees continued to be employed, as they have been. In fact, the BOE could have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars more by allowing Sodexo to use their own employees in those roles. In addition, both the food services and the state of facilities have improved since Sodexo has been in the district. This BOE should continue to closely examine its relationship with Sodexo, but the mayor should refrain from using inflated numbers to make a case for budget cuts.
4. An increase of less than 1% fails to account for the increase in special ed and special needs costs faced by the district. While the state and federal governments continue to shirk their responsibilities to educate those most in need, the burden falls on the district. That burden has increased year after year, and funding has decreased. By law the district cannot turn away students with special needs, and so a larger portion of an already thin budget must be allocated to those needs, thereby shortchanging other programs in the system.
5. An increase of less than 1% based on projections of declining enrollment misreads, and misuses the statistics. Is the school population decreasing? Yes, and it will continue to do so, reading the projections. However, it is not decreasing enough in the next year to allow for significant cost savings. No school can easily be closed. No bus routes dropped. There is still major overcrowding at Macdonough and Farm Hill (a one-year lease of a portable classroom now stretches into an extended solution). From the 2013-2014 to the projected 2016-2017 school year, Middletown High School is projected to have an enrollment decrease of 24 students, the middle schools will have a decrease of 10 students, and the elementary schools combined are projected to have 200 fewer students. Averaged over nine elementary schools and 123 classrooms that's fewer than two students per classroom. Using the study the mayor cited, it's hardly an incentive to decrease the budget by millions of dollars. In five years, the argument might make some sense. Right now, it's a red herring. In fact, according to the mayor's logic, we should also have less fire, police, road, and office staff at city hall because the US government projects a general decrease in population in Middletown since the last census. That projected decrease of 1.3% means that according to the mayor's reasoning, the city should be spending far less than it is on all its services.
6. An increase of less than 1% means your home will be worth less next year than it is today. Ask any real estate agent what the first question a family asks when moving into town. It's not what the bond rating is. It's about the schools. When the quality of schools decreases (and things like teacher/student ratio, test scores, advanced placement opportunities, and extracurriculars are all considered), then the value of your home decreases. The best economic generator for a city is its school system. To ignore that simple fact is fiscally irresponsible. To underfund our schools is to hurt property values and economic development in the city.
7. An increase of less than 1% means schools will be rated lower as our bond rating increases. How many times have you heard someone say "I'm moving to Greenwich because their Standard and Poors bond rating is so high?" Right, never. But people say they're moving to a community with great schools all the time. So, we pay our bonds off in ten years. That'd be a great thing to brag about if we could brag about our school system in the same way.
8. An increase of less than 1% is just another cut to the school budget which has seen cut after cut for 8 years. A 1% increase will mean that Middletown Public Schools will be moving backwards and not forwards. A 1% increase will mean that after receiving $10 million less than requested in the past four years, the system will once again get millions less than it needs to operate progressively, or even on a very restricted basis. Running a school system is a damned expensive proposition, but I can't think of anything that is more important for our cities, communities or our country.
9. An increase of less than 1% means that our best teachers and staff will eventually go elsewhere. I am consistently amazed that talented teachers continue to work as we strip away their resources. We make them teach more students. We make them deal with student populations who increasingly have mental health, behavioral and learning issues. We give them less and less in terms of support and supplies. And they come to work each day smiling and eager to teach. I don't think it can go on forever. Everyone has a breaking point. Everyone gets tired of doing a job when they're not supported. Everyone knows it's easier, and more lucrative to teach in Glastonbury and Simsbury and West Hartford. I have nothing but respect for Middletown's teachers and staff. We need to support them appropriately as they educate our children.
10. An increase of less than 1% means that you can't go around shouting that you're a supporter of public education. It's as simple as that. It takes a brave politician to look at taxpayers in the eye and to tell them we're not doing enough for our schools. At this point in history, with state and federal support shrinking, the burden falls on our shoulders. Until we can get our feckless state legislators to educate all Connecticut students equitably as the state constitution demands, we are forced to bear the responsibility. We can either lift together, or abandon one of our most important public systems. If it means more taxes, I'll pay, and I know many more who feel the same way.
For years, the mayor and the Council have stated that they can't fully support the Board of Education budget because they haven't been able to examine line item spending. A new fully-transparent financial system is now in place. A scrape-by budget has been delivered. The Common Council must reject the minimal increase proposed by the mayor, and provide adequate funding for Middletown's schools.