City’s magnet schools face budget shortfalls

New Haven’s magnet schools recently won more than $6 million in federal grants, but they may lose that same amount — plus a third of their students in the next three years — as a result of a state budget reconfiguration.

Throughout the state, some leading municipal officials and education specialists are now sounding alarms over the budget’s provisions for funding magnet schools, which they say will deprive those schools of money and discourage suburban districts from sending their students to magnet districts.

A sophomore tutors New Haven youth at King/Robinson Magnet School. City officials are seeking innovative ways to fund magnets in light of new state policies.
Nick Bayless
A sophomore tutors New Haven youth at King/Robinson Magnet School. City officials are seeking innovative ways to fund magnets in light of new state policies.

In June state lawmakers increased education spending based on Connecticut’s Education Cost Sharing formula — which distributes state funds to municipalities based on their financial need — by at least 12 percent for all state regions in the 2007-’08 fiscal year.

In New Haven, the cause for concern emerged last week when Mayor John DeStefano Jr. spelled out the city’s projected losses of $2 million in the 2008-’09 school year, and of $4 million the following year, for its magnet school program.

Just days before, the city announced it had won a federal grant of more than $6 million to add four new magnet schools, which aim to promote socioeconomic and cultural diversity in addition to student achievement.

It ‘simply worked’

Two of the three primary sources of funding for magnet schools — inter-district magnet grants and ECS reimbursements — are affected by the new legislation, which has produced an increase in the former and a decrease in the latter. Local funds supplement these two state-provided resources.

School districts receive ECS reimbursements from the state based on the amount they can afford to allocate to education. New Haven last year ranked 164 out of 169 municipalities in Connecticut and received over $6,000 per student in ECS funding, former public school educator and magnet school pioneer Ed Linehan said.

Suburban districts also collect ECS reimbursements for each of their students — even for students who attend city magnet schools.

Under the new legislation, inter-district magnet grants — which the state distributes to magnet schools based on the location from which students are commuting — will increase incrementally in the next four years, with magnet schools receiving $8,158 per out-of-town student in 2011, up from the current rate of $6,016. The $3,000 sum currently allocated for each local student will stay the same.

State officials said because education funding saw overall increases this year, they calculated they could reduce ECS support for every child attending a magnet school by 25 percent in the 2008-’09 fiscal year and then to 50 percent of its original value the year after, for both school districts that receive and send students.

Linehan, who managed New Haven’s magnet schools prior to retiring, said these cuts will leave magnet schools and their suburban partners in the red, even with the inter-district grant increase. DeStefano last week attributed the city’s potential $6 million losses to the same ECS reductions.

Prior to the new budget, New Haven’s magnet school funding “simply worked,” Linehan said. With a two-to-one ratio of local students to suburban students, New Haven’s schools combined two $3,000 local inter-district grants with one $6,016 grant in order to provide the $12,000 needed to support each out-of-town student — at no cost to the sending district.

Meanwhile, the city afforded the same $12,000 for local students with a combination of over $6,000 in ECS money and local property taxes, he said. But with ECS funds being halved over the next two years, Linehan said, New Haven’s magnet schools and their supporting suburban districts are losing out when New Haven will have to use the $3,000 grants for their local students to make up for the lost ECS funding.

“In the state’s effort to economize and to reduce the level of incentives that they’ve historically given to this program, they’ve gone way too far,” Linehan said. “Now, if we want suburban kids, we’re going to say [to suburban districts]: ‘We’re going to bill you,’ at precisely the same moment that for the first time the state is going to be cutting back support from them as well.”

Faced with money losses if they send students to magnet schools, suburban districts will restrict the number of students who can attend magnet schools in urban areas, defeating one of the larger purposes of magnet schools — socioeconomic and racial diversity — Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding Project Director Dianne deVries said.

“You cannot, you simply cannot expect generous or enthusiastic participation by suburban towns when they are carrying inappropriate burdens for that participation,” she said.

Funding an empty seat

State Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy said that the new budget is not intended to harm magnet schools and that the board will be sensitive to their concerns if and when municipalities present computer simulations showing projected losses.

“This formula was established by the Office of Policy and Management, [which] determined that with the major increase in aid through ECS, [the office] would have an opportunity to revise the magnet school subsidy formula as well as the ECS side of that without negative financial impact to the districts,” he said.

But while the education funding increases are commendable, deVries said, they may not last for long.

“It’s a plus, and it’s certainly a step forward,” she said. “However, that new money is all based on budget surplus, which means what was here this year probably won’t be here next year. You cannot fund the schools on surplus money — you must fund it first out of the budget.”

The state’s new budget reflects a shift in education spending principles for the better, with money from inter-district magnet grants following students wherever they go, rather than going straight into district pockets, Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now Executive Director Alex Johnston said.

Whether confident or uncertain of the budget’s consequences, observers said the state legislature’s next session, which begins in February, will be an important time for lawmakers to address grievances and iron out the kinks.

Because the ECS funding changes do not begin until the next fiscal year in late 2008, Murphy said, there is still time for school districts to present their cases to legislators. He said the ECS cuts should serve as “disincentives,” rather than discouragement.

“[The ECS reduction] doesn’t discourage them,” he said. “It doesn’t provide as much of an incentive as they’ve had. … It slices away a bit of the incentive of being paid a grant from the state to educate a child that they don’t have to pay to educate.”

Johnston said a one-year grace period prior to the funding changes will enable districts to cope with reduced funding. It makes little sense to provide ECS funding for an empty seat and for the state to pay twice in the name of one child, he said.

Awaiting the next year

Linehan said the budget changes may have been the product of political bargaining — state representatives told him the revisions occurred at the “11th hour” of their legislative special session. Thus, legislators may already be in a position to correct funding errors, he said.

Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo, spokeswoman for the New Haven Public Schools, said she does not think the new magnet school provisions will be reaffirmed in the next legislative session without “a good fight.”

“There’s a part of me that doesn’t believe this isn’t going to be fixed,” Linehan said. “It’s not going to be magical, but there are people who are committed to these schools’ continuing to function, and I think that includes the leadership in the majority of the members of the Legislature.”

As the legislation’s impact continues to sink in on the local level, John C. Daniels School Principal Gina Wells — whose school will convert next year to a magnet school with the new federal grant — said her school’s sixth-grade-and-up bilingual Chinese program will be popular with both local and out-of-town families.

“There are parents that are very anxious to send their kids here,” she said. “I think we’ll have too many suburban kids applying to our school, [and] they’ll probably be put on the waiting list. I have a belief in the type of program we’re offering.”

—Lacey Gonzales contributed reporting.

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