New London education budget deserves support
The New London Board of Education’s Finance Committee is developing an agenda and strategy that can help improve the financial health of New London Public Schools in the long-term. In the coming months, we will propose to the City Council creation of two non-lapsing funds (one targeted to special education and another for building maintenance) that can act as “rainy day funds” to smooth out unexpected expenses like insurance deductibles.
We will tie tuition and other fees to inflation, so that they will track with our costs regardless of the political will of future boards.
New London’s membership in LEARN can be utilized to push for a regional solution to drive down student transportation costs for cities and towns. We’ve recommended the inclusion of a “grant writer” position to bring revenue for NLPS that doesn’t affect the property tax liability.
In short, a growing list of long-term solutions can help bend our cost curve. Unfortunately there is no magic bullet to kill cost inflation. Neither is there a short-term solution that will close our revenue gap, having exhausted the “easy” budget cuts long ago.
New London Public Schools have not seen a substantial budgetary increase in three years, although our overall costs have been increasing at over 2 percent per year. In real terms, that’s over $4 million that has had to be cut, saved, or otherwise offset over the last three years. The 90 percent growth in state revenue since 2012 associated with our magnet transition has offset all of the cost of the out-of-district students and a share of educating our own resident students. But, as we near our target for magnet students that growth is no longer available to us, and somehow must be made up.
Health-care costs are eating up our budget as much as anything else, yet with our ability to buy into the state pool we’ve managed to hold that to “only” 6.8 percent inflation related specifically to health-care costs.
We’ve held our overall inflation to a half-percent below the national Employer Cost Index for education. Meanwhile, our transportation contractor hit us with a 10 percent increase just a few years ago.
Yet, without any additional money from taxpayers, the NLPS have made it work. We have taken on a 21 percent increase in enrollment since 2012. Over a third of that growth was from New London residents. We have held class sizes steady, and kept teachers in the classroom.
We have made deep cuts that have been distributed throughout the system, and which have equally included equally the often-criticized central office. Our Interim superintendent, Dr. Stephen Tracy, might not brag about it, but the truth is he gave himself a 20 percent pay reduction (by furlough) so that he could help the district reduce costs, and so he could stay through the winter to serve our students.
We don’t have an assistant superintendent – that position was eliminated years ago. NLPS has looked for every savings, and every grant to make up the gap. All of this has been necessary to hold costs flat, and still provide for our students. If there was any fat before, it has been stripped away by three flat budgets.
I believe that if we do not make up this revenue gap, it will begin to impact students. A reverse in progress will hurt both morally and practically. If we’re not able to find the political will to see our magnet transition through in a robust and thoughtful way, we will all be worse off in the end.
If we fail to invest in our schools, we will lose the opportunity to be a regional leader in education. And, if our schools are unattractive, then how will we attract the skilled workforce, the families, and the people whose choices materially affect that poorly defined concept, economic growth?
That is why, in a year with many potential budget cuts in front of us, I ask for support to increase the education budget. Education is what needs the most attention and investment. Our students and parents depend on our city leaders and the decision they are about to make.
I’ve tried to be completely transparent about what is driving the costs in our district, but there will be pushback. I wouldn’t want to trade places with a city councilor, because they’re in an uncomfortable position. They’re being asked to make up for inflation, a flawed tax system, a disinterested and unsupportive state, and the choices of previous governments. They’ve got a variety of priorities to balance, and this budget will ultimately be a reflection of what our priorities are as a city.
If educating our young people is truly a priority, I want to see it fully funded.
Jefferey Hart is chairman of the New London Board of Education Finance Committee.
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