New London schools fighting for restoration of funding

New London — A Finance Board vote earlier this week to cut $1 million from the school budget has sent shockwaves through the school district.

School officials, teachers, parents and students alike are now appealing to the City Council for restoration of those funds, saying the cuts would severely damage the improving school system.

There is hope, Mayor Michael Passero said.

Passero said he expects to have a legal opinion by Monday on the legitimacy of the controversial Finance Board vote. The board voted on the school budget with just two of its five members. Two people were absent and one abstained.

The adjusted $40.7 million school budget figure passed on the same night by the City Council was approved with a 4-2 vote. Their hands were tied. Once the Finance Board sets a budget figure, the City Council alone cannot increase the amount without a joint vote with the finance board, known collectively as the Appropriating Board.

Passero said that, based on the City Charter, the Finance Board vote was invalid. According to Sec. 52 of the City Charter, related to the Finance Board, “A vote of the majority of the members of said board shall determine the action thereof in all matters.”

If the Finance Board vote was invalid, then the City Council can rescind their vote, Passero said. He will recommend they go back to his original $41.7 million figure for school funding.

The $750,000 cut to the city portion of the budget was made by three members and Passero said he has no recourse.

Three Finance Board members were present at the board's meeting Monday: Peter Bergeron, Lonnie Braxton and Stephanie Brown. Donald Macrino and Jerome Fischer were not present.

All three voted to scale back the city government budget by $750,000, from $49.1 million to $48.3 million. Bergeron and Brown voted to cut the school budget from $41.7 million to $40.7 million. Braxton abstained from that vote.

The potential cuts to the school district’s budget prompted a news conference Thursday at the Science and Technology Magnet High School.

School board President Scott Garbini said the Finance Board’s move was “careless, heartless and illegal.” In addition to the $1 million cut, the city’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year entirely drops the $515,000 traditionally allocated for school building maintenance. If that change remains, Garbini said the proper maintenance of the city's schools is in jeopardy.

“The Finance Board action further reduces the budget to the point where education will receive less than the current year even before considering inflation,” Garbini said. “We cannot maintain our progress and sustain yet another year with no revenue increase while demand for placement in New London schools continues to increase.”

Garbini said that while the education budget is often in the crosshairs of taxpayers, the school budget has risen by just 3.5 percent since 2010 even as the school continues to see a jump in enrollment and an increase in contractual agreements, health insurance and transportation costs.

“New London Public Schools is clearly doing more with less and at the same time we’re clearly improving. If you felt we were too fat a couple years ago in our budget, you should be able to see now we’ve been on a diet. There is no more fat,” Garbini said. “If the budget before us is approved, you will see terribly negative impacts on our schools our community and our property values.”

School Superintendent Manuel Rivera said it's not only out-of-district students increasingly coming to New London, there is a marked increase in New London students returning to the schools.

Rivera said the $1 million reduction is not his only concern. The school budget had anticipated at least $3.5 million special education funds as recommended in the governor’s budget. With budget debates still underway in Hartford, he said, it doesn’t appear that money is guaranteed.

“I’m sitting here today with concerns not only about the $1 million but potentially with a gap that could climb as high as $4.6 million. How do you address that?” Rivera said.

“There is no question to make education cuts to that level, there would be massive layoffs. It would affect all levels of the organization,” he said.

He said the magnet schools are generating $13.2 million in revenues to the district, and there would be dire consequences if the rollout of other planned magnet schools is delayed.

“We don’t want to jeopardize the direction we’re going in,” Rivera said.

School representative Chloe Murphy said support for the schools is support for the city’s youth. Many of the students remain in or return to New London. “I think that speaks to the fact that knowing these students are going to be our leaders in the future of New London, we need to invest in them,” she said.

 A representative from the Finance Board was not immediately available for comment.

g.smith@theday.com

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