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End of Pandemic Funding Could Spell Disaster for Some Connecticut Schools

<Ƶ class="subtitle">Connecticut’s biggest urban school districts are facing the most serious financial problems.
Wilbur Cross High School student Maya Harpaz-Levy speaks at a rally in front of her school. (Shahrzad Rasekh/CT Mirror)

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The administrators of the Hartford Public Schools system have a problem.

Left with a nearly $37 million budget hole despite pleas for more local and state funding to plug holes left by the expiration of federal pandemic aid, they will, in the coming weeks, sort out the details of eliminating close to 400 positions and decide which programs to cut back this fall.

The Bridgeport school district, on the other hand, will avoid massive layoffs this year — despite the loss of its federal funding — by using most of its roughly $36 million in reserves to help close its own deficits, leaving the district in a precarious position next spring.

New Haven’s school system also will avoid staff cuts this year — although with an expected $12 million deficit, the district will have to make some tough choices in the coming weeks to balance the budget that goes into effect July 1.

Waterbury’s school district, meanwhile, is looking to hire more staff and has sidestepped the problems plaguing the state’s other large urban school districts, mostly by not hiring permanent staff with the millions in federal pandemic aid schools have received over the last several years.

Yet the district conceded it will still have to pull back at some point on COVID-funded programming, as most school districts will, once the money dries up later this year.

Whether it’s the loss of a favorite teacher, cuts to services like tutoring or mental health support, or even the complete shutdown of their school, almost every public school student in Connecticut will feel some type of impact from the expiration of federal pandemic relief funding.

For several years, Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, known as ESSER,  to school districts across the country. Beyond investing in academic recovery efforts, schools have also used the funds for innovative teaching programs, school upgrades and temporary contracts to fill staff vacancies. The expiration of the funding on Sept. 30 is  that are expected to lose between hundreds of thousands up to tens of millions of dollars.

In Connecticut, urban hubs have already been , and now they’re also most likely to bear the brunt of a painful transition period with budget deficits that may climb upward of $40 million in upcoming academic years.

“This and next year are going to be particularly hard. There’s not enough funding coming in from either the state or local level to make up the difference of expiring federal aid, so as a result you’re going to see either staffing cuts or programmatic cuts,” said Michael Morton, the deputy executive director for communications and operations at the , a nonprofit policy organization. “You’re going to see that in [all] districts, but the hit’s particularly hard in urban districts that .”

Hartford public schools received over  and are facing a $36.8 million budget deficit this fall as the money runs out. That equates to the potential elimination of nearly 400 positions, the possibility of nine school consolidations and program reductions to things like initiatives that targeted getting chronically absent students back into the classroom.

Problems on top of problems

The expiration of ESSER funds is another hit to Connecticut urban school districts that have already faced decades of funding woes.

“When we look at the problems that districts are facing for budgets, yes, a big part of that is the expiration of ESSER funds. A big part of that [also] is higher student needs where there’s more students who are coming to school living in poverty. There’s more students who are multilingual learners and need additional supports. There are more students who need special education services — that all adds up,” Morton said. “But what the root problem is, is the systemic inequities that have gone on for generations and generations and generations.”

Local municipalities account for  of their public school funding, so the underfunding of city districts was inevitable after being plagued with limited taxable property in addition to the concentration of low-income households.

In 2019, the state government created a  in which, on top of a flat block grant, districts could receive additional state aid based on student need, including extra support for low-income and multilingual learners.

In recent years, education has become a top priority for “,” Education Committee co-chair Rep. Jeff Currey told The Connecticut Mirror earlier this year.

This prioritization led to legislation that  of the Education Cost Sharing , which is how the state distributes funding to school districts. Other legislation also  how much a public school district has to pay in tuition expenses to magnet schools when a student enrolls. The magnet school tuition cap is expected to save local districts millions of dollars.

The efforts are expected to increase overall revenue in most Connecticut school districts and allow those with high enrollment numbers in magnet schools to net savings.

In Waterbury, the district won’t have any cuts into the upcoming school year, thanks to savings they’re anticipating from the magnet tuition cap and a $19.2 million increase of state grant money, Waterbury Mayor Paul Pernerewski told the CT Mirror.

Despite existing efforts, superintendents and city leadership from Waterbury, Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven, state lawmakers and other education stakeholders all agree that the conversation and recent investments toward making Connecticut schools more equitable is just beginning.

Next year, several stakeholders plan to push for the state to fully fund choice schools rather than leaving the burden to fall on public school districts. There’s also advocacy for including special education as a weight in the school funding formula and the expansion of the  because cities disproportionately have tax-exempt properties, and property taxes pay for schools.

But before looking to the 2025 legislative session, districts have to focus on their budgets now.

The CT Mirror spoke with education leaders in the state’s four biggest districts about how they plan to move their schools forward with already historic underfunding, in addition to navigating a major cut in revenue.

Hartford: Nearly $37M deficit will mean hundreds of staffing cuts

Hartford public schools may be the worst off district in the state, making  for a $36.8 million deficit and the possible elimination of 384 positions in the budget that goes into effect July 1.

Of those roles, over 230 were temporary contracts funded by federal relief dollars. 

Temporary positions included social workers, paraeducators, resource teachers, student engagement specialists and family community school support providers.

Families gathered outside of Weaver High School in Hartford in early May and advocated for more funding to their public schools. (Jessika Harkay/CT Mirror)

The district also plans to remove 84 job vacancies and is planning for dozens of layoffs of both non-certified and certified staff, but the situation remains fluid as the numbers haven’t accounted for retirement and resignation notices yet.

Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez says she’s aware of the criticism over how the one-time funds were spent on staffing, but she said it was the right move for the district and its needs.

“What else was I going to invest in?” Torres-Rodriguez told the CT Mirror. “We had investments in HVAC systems, and curriculum, and things that are going to be with us for the long term, but our students needed to get caught up — to recover academically, emotionally. Our educators needed support. We needed to leverage the resources that way.

“If I had the money and the money came tomorrow, and we had the need, I would do it all over again,” Torres-Rodriguez said.

The district’s central office is expected to decrease staffing by about 16.5%. Meanwhile, school staff reductions are estimated at about 11.2%.

Despite a massive staffing overhaul and program reductions, Torres-Rodriguez said “art, music and athletics will be guaranteed at our schools,” and that there aren’t any plans to reduce success centers at the district’s comprehensive high schools, which provide additional support to help students graduate.

“We’re seeing great progress in our students that were either disengaged, needed additional time or smaller settings of support,” Torres-Rodriguez said, hopeful that this June the district may see its highest ever graduation rate thanks to investments from the COVID-19 funding.

In a presentation to the state Board of Education’s accountability and support committee in mid-May, Torres-Rodriguez acknowledged that COVID-19 funding is a “present issue,” but “it is long-term fiscal challenges that necessitate significant change in how we operate.”

Students, families and Hartford Public School staff gathered outside Weaver High School in early May to advocate for better funding of their schools.

“This is a really complex layer after layer,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “There’s the flat stagnant funding [from the city], then you overlay the school choice ecosystem, then you overlay declining enrollment, then you overlay the higher concentration of need that exists in communities that have been under-resourced, then you overlay the fact [the increase of] our special education rates. … When you look at these things long enough, you begin to see patterns [of inequities] and the root causes of it.”

Since 2018, the city of Hartford’s contribution has remained around $95 million, despite increasing expenses for things like special education, declining populations in traditional public schools but higher enrollments in choice schools (which means a larger amount of the budget being paid into tuition) and inflation in general.

“Any revenue that we would have from students that come to us from other districts, we just funnel it right back out,” Torres-Rodriguez said, adding that she hopes the state considers a better reimbursement model for districts with large populations of high-need students and with high concentrations of choice schools.

For weeks, advocates have organized rallies, protests and groups to speak at public meetings to criticize an increased budget for law enforcement while the school system has received flat funding and continues to struggle.

The city’s budget, approved on May 21, increased funding for the police department by 3.4%. 

“It’s a sure sign of systemic racism that the city whose demographics are predominately Black and brown chooses to prioritize policing them rather than educating them,” said Adam Bulmash, a Hartford resident, social worker and member of the Hartford Jewish Organizing Collective at a city budget public hearing in May. “This is not how you improve our city. We know for a fact that these cuts are going to result in fewer teachers, overflowing classrooms, poor learning outcomes and inattentive care for our higher-need students.”

The efforts helped the district’s projected revenue increase from $429 million to $435 million after the state contributed an additional $5 million and the city absorbed a $1 million expense for crossing guards.

Dozens of Hartford residents protested and spoke at a city council meeting in early May in support of more funding for the local school district. (Jessika Harkay/CT Mirror)

Future conversations within Hartford Public Schools about sustainability will start to shift and focus on school consolidation and program innovation.

The superintendent said the district needs to “take into consideration the entire ecosystem,” which means shifting resources to make sure schools are balanced — particularly looking at elementary and middle schools that have enrollments of 320 or fewer students and considering the closure of nine schools.

“There’s less economy of scale that way where with [a higher number of schools] we’re less able to offer more,” Torres-Rodriguez said, adding how  considered how schools within the district had significant disparities in the number of course offerings, after-school programs and other resources.

“Right-sizing [isn’t] just about what we could save, to put back into the budget and mitigate, it’s also about having to do right by all of our students. We have to have opportunities and conditions for all of our students to have access,” Torres-Rodriguez said.

Bridgeport: Draining its reserves to close a deficit

The Bridgeport Public Schools system has balanced a $309 million budget entering the 2024-25 school year after addressing a $41 million deficit with new revenue from additional state grants and the magnet school tuition cap, closing vacant positions and draining its reserves.

The question now becomes whether Bridgeport is prolonging what many believe is an inevitable fiscal cliff, which could mean an approximately 10% budget reduction in FY2026, according to Joseph Sokolovic, a longtime member of the Bridgeport Board of Education and former board finance chair.

“We’re going to exhaust our entire internal service fund this year, our internal savings and the fiscal cliff will hit in ’25-26,” Sokolovic said. “We got 12 to 15 years of escalating costs in the normal course of business, plus we got the ESSER funded positions that we’re keeping that we did not have prior to ESSER … so we’ll have approximately $39 million of need for next year with no savings to cover if all things remain equal … as far as increased funding.”

Sokolovic is anticipating more school closures and staff cuts in the 2025-26 school year.

Despite requesting an increase of $16 million, the district is receiving only $3 million more from the city than the previous year, bringing the city’s total contribution to $78.5 million in 2024-25. The district is also anticipating a $9.2 million increase from the state and $700,000 of savings from the magnet school tuition cap.

“Unfortunately, it’s not enough to prevent the upcoming fiscal cliff, which we expect to occur in fiscal year 2026,” said Patricia St. Louis, the district’s interim chief financial officer at a local board of education facilities and finance committee meeting on May 20.

The district is anticipating to close this fiscal year with a $6 million to $8 million shortfall and will use some of its roughly $36 million of reserves to balance its existing FY24 budget.

District leaders initially planned to withdraw another $12.8 million from the reserves fund if its municipality contributed the full $16 million request. However, with only $3 million of that request being allocated to the district, it plans to withdraw even more.

The district, between balancing the FY24 and FY25 budgets, plans to strip about $32 million out of its reserve fund.

The Bridgeport Board of Education Facilities and Finance Committee live-streamed their meeting on May 20 to discuss budget issues.

“This will leave us with only $4.5 million in fiscal year ’26 to rely on,” St. Louis said, adding how that’s the required minimum amount to have in the account. “It is projected that that operating budget gap will reemerge due to historical underfunding in the Bridgeport operating budget.” 

Trying to get ahead of the deficit, Superintendent Carmela M. Levy-David said the district has “identified many areas when it comes to instructional resources where we can save a great deal of money” at a board of education meeting in late May.

It starts with her commitment to the school district, where she said she intends to stay for several years to come.

“I am the fifth superintendent in seven years. … School districts that have constant superintendent turnover will have higher rates of chronic absenteeism, higher rates of student failure, higher rates of financial insufficiency and higher rates of attrition with their staff,” Levy-David said. “We have to begin by right-sizing and stabilizing the way that we do organizational leadership in Bridgeport, the way we use the resources that we already have, the way that we use the funds that we are given differently so that we are not constantly in a spending and rescue mode that has been the culture of Bridgeport for the last 20 years.”

Equitable staffing is next.

“We don’t staff based on the needs of the school or based on the level of challenges and issues that are apparent in the school. Everybody gets the same no matter what, and that is not a formula for success. That is not the way that it has been done in the last 10 years in successful school districts,” Levy-David said. “Those are things that we now have to actualize and modernize in Bridgeport in order to stay with the trends that actually help to improve our retention of quality staff and also our ability to ensure that the systems that we build are scalable and sustainable.”

As for its funding woes, Levy-David said the district has recently hired a grant writer to capitalize on its high enrollment of multilingual and learners with special needs. 

“We qualify for everything, but we have simply not been competing for very substantial educational grants at the state and federal level,” Levy-David said, adding that the district also hopes to decrease its special education costs through more efficient transportation that could net savings in excess of $10 million.

“The systems that we’re putting in place are going to ensure that we can stabilize and actually lead this district to a completely new era of stability for the next 10 years. I have committed to being in this district for a decade,” Levy-David said. “I believe that this work is attainable. … We know the process of transforming school systems into being successful solvent school systems. We just need the opportunity to do the work.”

New Haven: Anticipates $12 million deficit, but no layoffs on the table

Unlike several of its urban counterparts, the New Haven Public Schools system hasn’t seen a history of flat-funding from its municipality — which plans to invest a total of about , a $5 million increase into the school system.

But the school district requested $77.6 million, or a $16.8 million increase, which is an amount some stakeholders say was simply to “keep the lights on” and maintain its current operations. The difference would leave the district with a $12 million deficit in its $345.5 million budget for the upcoming school year.

“It’s going to put us at a distinct disadvantage as we’re preparing for the upcoming school year and beyond. … We know that with increased need comes a need for an increased budget, and now is the time to ensure students have what they need. Now is not the time to fall backwards,” said Leslie Blatteau, union president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers. “[Our superintendent’s] proposed budget was going to keep the lights on. I suspect there are going to be hard decisions that are going to have to be made if we end up with the status quo of the mayor’s proposed $5 million.”

Blatteau, joined by several other educators and students, rallied on May 24 for the full funding of their school district to particularly target an increase of multilingual learners and student mental health needs as well as making upgrades to school facilities.

New Haven Public School educators, paraeducators, and students held a press conference in front of Wilbur Cross High School to advocate for increased school funding on May 24, 2024. (Shahrzad Rasekh/CT Mirror)

Even facing a multimillion-dollar deficit, Blatteau and Mayor Justin Elicker both told the CT Mirror that cuts to certified staff are not on the table.

The district didn’t allocate much of its federal relief funding to full-time staffing because “we anticipated this problem and didn’t want to face a cliff where all of a sudden we would lose funding and have to do layoffs,” Elicker said, adding there were some hires to part-time and supplemental staff. 

Other relief funds went to infrastructure improvement and the expansion of the district’s summer school and after-school programming, which will likely be reduced as the money runs out.

“We [funded things like] dropout prevention specialists that go out in the community and identify why students aren’t in school and try to get them in school,” Elicker said. “If we go in the wrong direction by cutting after school programs and other initiatives, … we’re gonna have even more problems. What we need to do is just the opposite — it’s to have more supports for our young people.”

Elicker acknowledged that “public school needs is well above” what the district is asking for in its budget but said that the tax base model makes it difficult for the city to invest further.

“We’re spending much less per child than many districts out there,” Elicker said. “With a tax base where effectively half of our properties in New Haven are non-taxable, we’re relying on people that are not wealthy to fund our schools. We struggle to collect taxes.”

In an effort to make up extra revenue, Elicker said, the city is raising taxes by 4%.

The district also is analyzing its transportation costs and working on the “right-sizing of our classrooms” by balancing school enrollment better with “slightly higher teacher-to-student ratios,” Elicker said.

District leadership also plans to “explore the potential of school consolidations” in 2025-26.

Waterbury: A balanced budget and looking to hire

Waterbury is entering the 2024-25 school year with a different problem than that shared by Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven.

“There’s no fiscal cliffs here,” Pernerewski, the city’s mayor, said.

Despite flat-funding from the city since 2017, the district has balanced a budget of around $295.5 million that’s being carried by increases in state funding, , which are the lowest-performing districts in the state.

“For FY25, the City expects to receive an ECS grant in the amount of $190.4 million based upon the State’s FY24-25 Adopted Biennial Budget,” . “This is $19.2 million more than the anticipated FY24 ECS grant. The non-restricted portion of the ECS money reflected in the General Fund is $113.6 million. This base amount has remained stable for many years. The Alliance portion of the grant, which is awarded directly to the Board of Education, is expected to be $76.7 million.”

The district isn’t considering any type of staff reduction or school consolidations but is rather looking to hire and expand.

“We need about 100 more teachers in Waterbury, and not that we’re hoping anybody faces fiscal problems, but I think there’s a part of us that thinks that if some school districts are laying off teachers, we may be able to benefit from that and that we can try to hire some of those teachers here,” Pernerewski said.

Waterbury’s ESSER funding was mainly spent on “larger capital projects,” like HVAC systems, school renovations and playground updates, Pernerewski said. 

“Waterbury has done a really good job of being very prudent with its ESSER dollars,” Pernerewski said. “What we did was avoided bonding in a lot of cases over the years from projects that needed to get done, and we’re able to use those dollars for that, which was the savings, because we don’t have the bonding costs moving forward.”

Waterbury Superintendent Verna Ruffin at a Board of Education meeting in early May.

The district also used a “considerable amount” of its budget to focus on “academic acceleration” and tackling anticipated learning gaps from remote learning. These initiatives included access to 24/7 tutoring, Superintendent Verna Ruffin said.

The district has no plans to “eliminate” those programs either, though there may be some reductions in the 2025-26 school year to the tutoring program, socio-emotional support and other COVID-funded initiatives.

“We’re looking to see if [we] can get grants to sustain some of the programs that we started,” Ruffin said, adding that there will not be any type of reductions to special education, pre-K, kindergarten or bilingual programming services.

Advocacy efforts at the state level

There was no right way to use ESSER funding, Morton said.

“I think in everything that we’ve looked at, districts have spent the resources in a way that they thought was best to address the needs of the student population that they have — and that’s going to differ from district to district,” Morton said.

The conversation will soon shift back to lawmakers and what the state can do to continue pushing its historically underfunded districts forward.

For Rep. Maryam Khan, who represents parts of Hartford, Windsor and South Windsor and serves on the Education Committee, there are three funding priorities on her agenda that are “rooted in discrimination” and that she hopes to change.

Khan said much of urban schools’ budgets go toward paying tuition for sending students to choice schools, particularly magnet schools. She hopes initiatives this year will put those fiscal responsibilities on the state.

“The state has created these choice schools, and if the state has created them, the state should fund them and not put that burden on the town and cities to fund them,” Khan said. “We really, really have to start looking at that equitable distribution of resources.”

Khan and Rep. Ron Napoli, D-Waterbury, both touched on the cost of special education, which is one of the highest costs for school budgets, but receives limited or no reimbursement from the state.

There’s a push from advocates for the state to provide an extra weight for school districts so they can receive more funding when they have high enrollments of students with disabilities.

“[Special education] is something that we will always look at and try to find a way to get districts to a better place and making sure that school districts are reimbursed so our special needs students can really get the services they need,” Napoli said.

“Most states do have funds for special education and reimbursement. I think we’re one of the only two states that don’t have any room for special education costs,” Khan said. “This is going to be of the biggest things I know I’m going to be pushing for.”

Khan also mentioned expanding the PILOT program that sets payments for tax-exempt land owned by the state.

“That’s one thing that I really want to look at beyond just education. Our cities need more revenue, and they are losing revenue because so many things are non-taxable [like hospitals, schools and churches],” Khan said.

Education Committee members Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, and Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, did not respond to requests for comment about their districts’ funding struggles or initiatives for the upcoming legislative session.

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