Boosting NL school spending easier said

The "special master" appointed by the state Board of Education to help New London's public schools improve stated the obvious to the Board of Education at its meeting Thursday, saying the city cannot continue to flat fund education and expect to maintain current performance, never mind hope to improve.

Steven Adamowski, a former superintendent of schools in Hartford and Norwich, well knows the special challenges confronting urban school districts. He talked in ominous terms about what it could mean if city schools do not get increased spending for the 2013-2014 school year, raising the prospects of loss of local control. The coming school year will be the fifth in a row with flat funding.

But in admonishing the school board about this "shameful distinction" and urging them to "turn things around," Mr. Adamowski was in effect chastising one of the victims of parsimonious fiscal policies. It is the school administration and the Board of Education that, year after year, have presented requests for increased spending to meet contractual obligations and inflationary costs, only to be told by the City Council to make do with existing spending levels.

Some of Mr. Adamowski's future stops need to be the mayor's office, the City Council and public forums. While the special master noted part of the school board's job is to work to persuade those in control of the purse to support public schools, it should also be part of the state's intervention policy to move this discussion to the entire community.

There are various factors for stagnant funding of New London schools. Unlike its own general government budget, in which it has to find the means to control spending, the council can dictate that the school board hold the spending line without the responsibility of figuring out how. Parents in single-family and economically struggling households, consumed with getting by, are perhaps more likely than their suburban counterparts to tolerate the spending squeeze without rising up in protest. Many middle- and upper-middle class New London families enroll their children in private or alternative schools, and so are not invested in their local schools.

The most dominating factor, however, is the continuing dependence on the municipal property tax system for paying for education. As we've noted before, New London is ill served by this tax system. With its many non-profit institutions, public housing, limited space to develop and modest commercial tax base, it is tough for New London to pay for the public services it needs. City property owners are heavily taxed and their reluctance to pay more understandable.

And therein resides one of the weaknesses of the education reform effort in Connecticut. It does many good things, including boosting early childhood education opportunities, placing a greater emphasis on reading proficiency, expands family resource centers, develops the framework for new teacher evaluation standards and provides for more aggressive state intervention in struggling districts.

But state leaders continue to avoid genuine property tax reform, tolerating a system of have and have-not communities based on the size of commercial tax bases and public service demands. Without some reform urban centers will continue to be at a disadvantage and finding the resources to adequately fund education will remain a struggle.

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