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Soto prepares for work in upcoming legislative session

New London — With just a month before the start of the state’s legislative session, Chris Soto is preparing a priority list with an eye toward education.

Soto, who is the founder of the nonprofit Higher Edge and was elected in November to represent the 39th House District in New London, welcomed ideas on a host of topics from about a dozen people during an open forum Tuesday at the Opportunities Industrialization Center of New London.

After an introduction about his duties as a lawmaker, Soto shared ideas on initiatives he is working on: predictability in special education spending, addressing the demand for bilingual and minority teachers, financial aid for undocumented students and accountability for owners of sober houses.

Of his new job, Soto said his focus will be on serving constituents and “becoming part of a bigger team that improves the lives of people living in Connecticut and New London.”

Soto welcomed state Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, and Werner Oyanadel, a senior policy analyst with the Commission on Equity and Opportunity, to Tuesday’s forum.

Soto is working with New London Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein to investigate legislation that might give greater oversight or accountability for landlords running sober houses across the state. The city recently learned that a voluntary certification program initiated by the city for its more than 30 sober houses was stalled because of lack of state funds.

Soto said he will support previously stalled legislation that helps school districts recruit minority teachers and address what he called a crisis of a lack of bilingual teachers across the state. He said a roadblock to recruitment has been the state’s restrictive reciprocity rules, the process of certifying teachers from out of state. Some in the audience, such as Board of Education member Mirna Martinez, however, warned that the issue needs to be addressed but not at the cost of lowering state standards.

In the area of school spending, Soto said the state is one of only four in the country that “doesn’t have a rational way to fund special education.” He said he supports the idea of a cooperative — a way to pool existing money spent on special education and allocate the money throughout the state in a fair way.

“If you ask any school superintendent in the state of Connecticut what one of their biggest challenges is, the answer is predicting special education costs. One student can cost anywhere from $15,000 ... to $150,000,” he said.

He said the Connecticut School Finance Project appears to have a solution with a cooperative that pools money and redistributes the funds.

Another issue Soto said he plans to tackle is the lack of financial aid for undocumented college students — students who are paying tuition but not reaping the benefits even though a percentage of that tuition goes toward financial aid.

“It’s not about their immigration status, it’s about equity,” he said.

He said a bill aimed at addressing the issue passed the Senate during the last legislative session but never made it to a vote in the House.

With a head of steam from decisive primary and general election wins, Soto said he is hoping supporters will harness the energy of the campaign when it comes getting to Hartford and having their voices heard on issues residents feel are important.

“When it comes to something related to New London, it can’t just be me,” Soto said.

g.smith@theday.com

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