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Hartford Courant

City officials call Hartford schools funding unsustainable

By Stephen Underwood, Hartford Courant,

2023-03-15
"For a lack of a better word, we feel like they are ghost students at this moment," said Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez. "Where are they? We can't find them." Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant/TNS

After the Hartford Board of Education approved a $429 million budget for 2023-24 that included $22 million in deficit mitigation measures, some city officials say the current way Hartford Public School’s are funded is unsustainable.

School officials point to 10 years of flat local funding and a decrease in enrollment-driven grants as major factors for the district’s financial woes.

Deficit mitigation measure include cutting eight vacant positions, leaving 250 of the district’s 400 vacant positions unfilled and cutting positions at the Central Office for a combined savings of $9-13 million. An additional $2-3 million in savings is expected through cutting programs.

The district is expecting approximately $96 million from the city in 2023-24, 23 percent of the total budget, according to Philip Penn, Hartford Public Schools CFO. The local funding represents a zero-dollar increase from previous years.

“We simply can’t go on like this,” said councilwoman Tiana Hercules. “Something has to change so the district is more sustainable.”

Hercules, a parent of children in Hartford Public Schools, said that continued flat funding means that the district is essentially receiving a pay cut year after year with inflation and rising costs for goods and services.

“Year by year needs are going to change for the students,” Hercules said. “The district will need to buy new technology, hire new staff, keep up with inflation and ensure kids’ needs are met. A flat funding model just doesn’t make sense to keep up with that demand.

Councilman Josh Michtom said that flat funding hurts children who need services the most but that most of the funds are non-negotiable unlike other communities, because they come from the state.

“The general procedure for any city department to make a budget ask is a presentation to the mayor, who then includes the ask, subject to his discretion, in his proposed budget, to which council may make amendments,” Michtom said. “HPS is a little different because most of their budget is state pass-through money, so it’s not really negotiable. They can, and do, get additional money from the general fund through the mayor’s proposed budget.”

The district receives a majority of its funds from the state, making up nearly 70 percent of the district’s budget.

Michtom said that HPS remains at a disadvantage because of its flat municipal funding. Hartford, which has been cash strapped for years due to a lack of taxable land, has been under state oversight since accepting a bankruptcy bailout in 2018.

“Flat funding and cost increases is, effectively, a reduction in funding,” Michtom said. “The superintendent has said, I believe, that HPS will cut or combine positions and leave vacancies unfilled, which obviously affects kids, because it increases the ratio of students to teachers and professionals. This will, of course, fall hardest on kids who have special needs that require the schools to make accommodations or provide support workers and on those who struggle academically.”

Declining Enrollment & Sheff

The Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation case began in 1989 with a lawsuit challenging the racial and economic inequalities between Hartford schools and those in neighboring mostly white, more affluent suburbs.’

The suit, named for Hartford mother Elizabeth Sheff and then-Gov. William O’Neill, led to

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in 1996 ruled in Sheff’s favor, finding that Hartford’s schools were both racially and economically segregated from surrounding towns and thus in violation of the state constitution.

As a response to the ruling, the state created a patchwork of magnet schools and school choice options to attract more children from surrounding suburban towns while also allowing city children to be bused to other districts.

To settle the case, the state last year agreed to meet demand for all Hartford students who want magnet school or Open Choice seats by the 2028-29 school year.

But while some lauded the agreement, some argue it hurts the district financially by drawing students — and funding — out of the public school system into magnet and Open Choice schools. And while the additional funding to incentivize suburban districts’ participation in Open Choice and millions of dollars for state-of-the-art magnet schools may benefit the few children heading to those schools, the majority of Hartford students will be left behind in underfunded schools.

“The official impact of the newest iteration of Sheff is not yet known, but anything that results in declining enrollment under the current budget structure could potentially have a negative financial impact on the district,” said Julia Skrobak, HPS assistant director of communications.

Hartford Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez in March 2022 said under the Sheff agreement Hartford Public Schools could lose between $40 million and $45 million over the next 10 years, according to district analysis.

Torres-Rodriguez said that the district has seen increased enrollment of Hartford students at CREC magnet schools over prior years, which has added to the deficit. The district must pay tuition for Hartford students who enroll at CREC schools and also loses funding due to decreased enrollment figures within the district.

“We still have to see how the allocation and acceptances are going to play out for Sheff,” Torres-Rodriguez said.

For the 2023-24 school year, 900 more Hartford residents have enrolled in non-Hartford magnet schools. In addition, 489 fewer suburban residents enrolled in Hartford Public Schools magnet schools this year than projected.

A projected 16,517 students are expected to enter HPS classrooms this coming fall, a 266 decrease from the previous school year.

Because of the loss of enrollment, the district is expecting a decline in the magnet school operating grant of a little under $8 million due to the drop in enrollment from suburban students.

In addition, as more students enroll in magnet schools the district expects to pay more money per student attending them.

“It’s an increase of $2,500 per student spread out over three years,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “The total impact of the combined loss of revenue and the higher tuition costs is projected at $8.6 million.”

But as the district braces for further decline in enrollment and higher magnet school tuition costs, city council member Michtom says it’s the current school funding model that’s to blame, not Sheff.

“The problem with Sheff is that it didn’t force suburban parents into enrolling in Hartford schools; it tried to get them to choose it voluntarily. But the whole reason most people choose to live in the suburbs is to distance their children from the poorer kids who go to school in the city. It’s not that Sheff is hurting Hartford kids.

“The town government system, which reinforces and perpetuates historical patterns of segregation, is hurting Hartford kids,” Michtom said. “Unless we, as a state, commit to drawing school district boundaries across town lines to create districts that are economically and racially balanced, or to pooling education funding statewide and then distributing resources based on local need, we will continue to have this problem and Hartford students will bear the weight of it.”

Hartford Board of Education Chairman Philip Rigueur, member Shontá Browdy and Mayor Luke Bronin did not reply to requests for comment.

Stephen Underwood can be reached at sunderwood@courant.com

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