Stop Budget Cuts / John Stavely

June 6, 2016; Hartford Courant

The Hartford School Board passed a $419 million budget for the next school year, $22.4 million less than the current budget and $3.2 million less than the district’s superintendent initially proposed. The 5.3 percent in cuts are blamed on the looming expiration of various grant-funded programs and a $3.2 million reduction in state aid for school transportation and operating funds for magnet schools.

Even with the school district’s central office taking a disproportionate share of the reductions, at least 235 full-time positions will be eliminated as the new budget is implemented. Job cuts don’t always correlate to layoffs; the article notes several instances where attrition and in-district transfers have preserved employment for Hartford’s 3,400 full-time workers.

Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez is frustrated by the cuts because she is focused on building educational quality and equity in Hartford’s public schools.

Narvaez told a federal civil rights commission last month that the city of Hartford was “on the brink of bankruptcy” and that bleak finances are weakening efforts to give a quality education to all. […] She has also described Hartford schools’ fiscal path as “unsustainable.”

Doing a gross calculation, dividing $419 million by 21,000 students results in a per-pupil cost of $19,952. School funding is far more complex than this calculation would imply, of course—some students cost more to educate than others, and there are targeted programs such as federal Title I and special education funding that at least attempt to address specific needs. The most expensive student to educate is the first one to walk in the door, because a school district has to have a lot of infrastructure and personnel in place to make it possible for a teacher to teach that one student. Economies of scale are possible, but only to an extent, because as student population increases, the diversity of both student needs (language support, special services) and curricular/extracurricular offerings expand. This is the public education finance version of the inverted-J curve. Hartford’s budget choices also illustrate the expenses that surround a student that aren’t directly instructional, such as the preservation of a social worker at each of Hartford’s public schools.

It’s easy to say education is crucial and more money needs to be allocated to it. It’s also easy to say education costs too much and taxpayers deserve a break from paying college tuition rates for K-12 public education. The hard road is using fresh approaches to differentiating between what is essential and what is desirable based on the district’s mission—to educate students—and then finding the funds to support that determination.—Michael Wyland