11 years after suit was filed, education funding issues dog urban schools

Carimarie Colon is 17 and a high school senior, planning to attend college and major in music next year.

Eleven years ago, she was a student at the Edgerton School in New London, when she was named as one of 16 students, along with multiple other plaintiffs including parents, educators, municipal leaders and union representatives, in a lawsuit.

The suit was brought by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educational Funding, which alleged the state was violating its Constitution by not fairly and adequately allocating monies for its public school districts.

Colon's mother, Maria Santiago-Valentin, a teacher at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School at the time, also was a plaintiff. 

Santiago-Valentin maintained then, and still believes now, that the state's funding formula that is so reliant on local property taxes puts urban communities like New London at a disadvantage and hurts its students.

She and her daughter were released from the lawsuit in 2007, when they moved out of Connecticut.

Now, Colon likely will graduate from college, or even grad school, before the issue of school funding in Connecticut is settled.

On Thursday, Connecticut's attorney general announced an appeal of the Sept. 7 ruling of Superior Court Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher in the case that was first brought when Carimarie was in elementary school.

"It was always a struggle, for people and materials," said Santiago-Valentin, who now is a learning disabilities teacher consultant in New Jersey, of her time in New London. "My goodness, it was a struggle for everything. Classrooms always had over 25 students. And myself and other colleagues had to advocate for every program."

"We were just so short-funded and it was unacceptable," she said. "All we wanted was (for our students) to be proficient, but how was that going to happen? It was so difficult."

And that was an argument of the plaintiffs in the suit that Moukawsher weighed in on.

In part, he sided with the CCJEF, ruling that the state's method of distributing education monies should be better balanced and the formula used to determine allocations more logical.

But rather than order more funding for less affluent, tax-strapped municipalities, he instructed the General Assembly to come up with a better way to dole out its public education funds — about $2 billion last year — as well as offer an outline to address what he perceived as other educational ills, such as the current delivery of special education services, unimpressive high school graduation rates and the evaluation of teachers.

In announcing his appeal, George Jepsen, the state's attorney general, said state education policy is determined by the legislative and executive branches "and implemented under a strong tradition of local control by municipal school boards and, ultimately, teachers."

"This decision would wrest educational policy from the representative branches of state government, limit public education for some students with special needs, create additional municipal mandates concerning graduation and other standards, and alter the basic terms of educators' employment — and entrust all of those matters to the discretion of a single, unelected judge," Jepsen said.

Both Jepsen and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, however, urged lawmakers to address the issues despite the appeal.

And that's what educators like Chris Clouet, New London's superintendent of schools when the city signed on to the CCJEF suit in 2005, would like to see happen.

Prior to the news that there would be an appeal, Clouet said, "from a positive point of view, the fact that we have a judgment after all these years of testimony and sifting through all these reports — a judgment that the system seems to not work and needs to be reconstructed, that's positive."

"I would refrain from applauding," he said of Moukawsher's decision, "but I am pleased with the fact that the judge noted the (funding) system is dysfunctional and needs to be reworked or replaced."

'Everything was difficult'

For local educators and school board members, finding local funds to supplement state aid for education has always been a battle in tax-poor New London.

Elaine Maynard-Adams served on the school board in the early days of the CCJEF suit and had a daughter who was educated in city schools.

She recalled the difficulties created by insufficient funds when her daughter was in school and when she served on the school board.

"While we were fighting to hang onto our gifted and talented program, in East Lyme they were adding foreign language instruction," she recalled. "And we were struggling to keep our school libraries open more than three days a week. There was a time when we laid off our librarians and staffed our libraries with aides. Everything was difficult."

The attorney general's decision to appeal Moukawsher's ruling means poor communities will continue to struggle, Maynard-Adams said.

"Another 10 years will pass, another generation of urban kids will struggle, and on it goes," she said.

Tommy Thompson, the New London High School principal who testified in the case, said he was grateful for Moukawsher's decision, and believed it was a result of inaction by the state's legislative and executive branches.

But it was difficult, he said, when he appeared before the court, to say how city schools are hurt by insufficient funding while at the same time heralding the good work that city educators are doing.

"The experience, providing testimony, was painful," he said, explaining, "We have to focus on what's in our control. We do what we can with what we have to change what we call life prospects. And we don't make excuses but just work hard. ... But we could definitely improve our educational experience for our kids with more resources."

Urban districts have more students who arrive in school unprepared or underprepared to learn, and more students with special needs, educators say.

And they have fewer financial resources and more difficulty attracting staff, because oftentimes urban districts pay less than those in the suburbs.

"But money alone will not improve our public schools," Thompson said. "You can't just throw money at a problem. You have to have talent and you have to make sure you are spending on the right things. You have to use best practices ... we have to be smart about how we use our money and know that it is a limited resource."

Funding and expectations

Nicholas Fischer, another former New London superintendent who has been involved in the case, said for schools to succeed, there should be consensus on what goals a student should be expected to meet and what the precise costs are to get the student to that goal. 

"We have to establish a literacy standard for education ... what are the knowledge and skills that a kid has to have to graduate?" he asked. "And what are the actual cost of the services to get there? For materials, for transportation, for overhead?"

"Only part of the issue is financial," he said. "The largest part of it is expectations."

But others, like Susan Connolly, another former school board member in New London, likened the state/local partnership in funding public education to a Sisyphus situation — a reference to the king in Greek mythology who is punished for deceitfulness and forced to roll a massive boulder up a hill, only to repeatedly watch it roll back down.

"The state says how much they give but there's not a rational basis to how it's distributed and to the terms and obligations of it," Connolly said of state funding for schools.

"But the court system has no business in this, because it's a legislative task," she said. "And yes, they aren't doing it. So the judge pointed out the flaws, but he didn't say this is how you do it ... so we can push that rock back up again."

Plaintiffs in the suit suspected there might be an appeal, but they still are anxious for there to be a discussion of how to rectify problems they see in the Education Cost Sharing formula that grew out of another lawsuit almost 40 years ago that is the blueprint for allocating state funds to local districts for education spending.

"What the (Moukawsher) ruling said to me is drop the politics. Stop playing games with politics," said Maynard-Adams. "If there is a formula adopted by the legislature, they should live by it."

Educators like Tommy Thompson are hopeful that there eventually will be reform.

"It is really hard, because we are here now. It's not like kids are coming, they are already here, and we have an obligation to those kids in our classrooms now," Thompson said. "So any delay contributes to what I call educational malpractice ... and I believe that stakeholders in all of our communities are now paying closer attention."

a.baldelli@theday.com

Timeline of school funding lawsuit

Nov. 22, 2005: Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educational Funding files lawsuit in Hartford Superior Court claiming the state does not provide "suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities to all children due to the state's education funding system." Fifteen plaintiff students and their families are named from Bridgeport, Danbury, Windham, Hartford, New Haven, East Hartford, New London, Plainfield and New Britain.

March 3, 2006: Attorney General Richard Blumenthal files a motion to dismiss the case, claiming the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction and CCJEF lacks standing to bring the claim, in part because a corporation representing parents "cannot piggyback an associational standing claim on the parents' representational status." CCJEF responds a month later that parents are now acting in their individual capacity and that CCJEF membership includes parents, educational advocacy organizations, community groups and teachers unions.

September 2007: Judge Joseph Shortall grants state's motion to strike three of the four claims in the lawsuit, writing that the plaintiffs have failed to state a claim on which the court could grant relief.

Oct., 29, 2007: With court's permission, the plaintiffs apply for certification by the state Supreme Court.

April 22, 2008: State Supreme Court hears oral arguments.

March 2010: State Supreme Court, in a 4-3 vote, reverses the lower court decision to dismiss most of CCJEF's claims, ruling that the state Constitution requires "public schools provide their students with an education suitable to give them the opportunity to be responsible citizens able to participate fully in democratic institutions, such as jury service and voting, and to prepare them to progress to institutions of higher education, or to attain productive employment and otherwise to contribute to the state's economy." Case returns to complex-litigation docket in superior court.

November 2010: Amended complaint filed by CCJEF.

2011, 2012: Pleadings and discovery continue before judges Kevin Dubay and Marshall Berger. Third amended complaint is filed in December 2012.

January 9, 2013. State moves to dismiss the case, claiming the case lacks ripeness, mootness and standing.

September 2013: Oral arguments heard on motion to dismiss. Judge Dubay denies motion to dismiss.

September 2015: Judge Thomas Moukawsher, newly assigned to the case, begins ruling on which evidence will be admitted at trial, sets trial date and issues strict orders about courtroom decorum.

Jan. 12, 2016: Trial begins in Hartford Superior Court. Focus cities include Bridgeport, Danbury, East Hartford, New Britain, New London and Windham, and plaintiffs are identified as parents of children attending those schools. CCJEF attorneys call dozens of witnesses, including New London High School Principal Tommy Thompson and Ruth Stewart-Curley, an English as a second language teacher from Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School.

March to June 2016: Defendant, the state, begins calling witnesses, including Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell.

July 2016: Attorneys file post-trial briefs.

Aug. 10, 2016: Moukawsher hears final arguments in the case. During the trial, more than 6,400 exhibits are admitted into evidence.

Sept. 7, 2016: Moukawsher reads his decision from the bench in Hartford Superior Court. He rules the state's method of distributing education aid is unconstitutional and irrational and gives the General Assmebly 180 days to fix the Education Cost Sharing formula.

Sept.  15, 2016. Attorney General George Jepsen's office files an appeal asking the Connecticut Supreme Court to overturn Moukawsher's ruling. 

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