May 13th, 2014 | City

School funding still sticking point of budget

In the latest standoff between a New Haven alder and the leadership of the school district, New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Garth Harries ’95 asserted that cutting $40 million from the city’s education budget would force the district to cut 200 teaching positions. 

Should such cuts occur, Harries said at Monday night’s Board of Alders finance committee meeting, the district would weigh its legal options to force the city to pay, promising to “fight for our kids.” That pledge came in response to Ward 19 Alder Mike Stratton’s suggestion that many millions of dollars could be trimmed from the city’s education contribution while still meeting the statutory requirement to receive state funding under the Education Cost Sharing formula. 

Stratton pointed out that New Haven is the only city in Connecticut that funds education more than ten million dollars above the Minimum Balance Requirement (MBR) set by the state. By a rough estimate at Monday’s meeting , the city spends more than $109 million over the MBR, Stratton said. 

In response, Harries emphasized the distinction between a legal requirement and adequate funding for New Haven’s children.

“We are not asking the Board of Alders for money because there is a legal requirement,” he said. “We are asking the board for money because it is the right thing to do for our children.”

Stratton’s discontent also stemmed from what he perceived as the district’s unwillingness to be transparent and respond to his inquiries about their budget, citing millions of dollars allegedly earmarked as “other.” On May 5, Stratton sent the Board of Education a 38-page questionnaire that included more than 100 true/false questions and 39 requests for document production. At the end of that week, the Board responded, answering “the main themes of the questions,” Harries said, but largely refusing to answer in Stratton’s proposed format. 

Monday night’s meeting devolved into a debate over which questions had and had not been answered. 

“I want my questions answered. I think it’s fair to get my questions answered,” Stratton said. 

Committee Chair Andrea Jackson-Brooks, alder for Ward 4, said she would go through Stratton’s questions and the Board of Education’s responses to see which questions still merited responses. 

Stratton said the city has declined to seek outside legal counsel on the issue of education funding because it fears for the legal consequences of the way education has been funded. Stratton’s argument is that by paying for in-kind services for the school district, such as health benefits, school nurses and payroll services, the city has hidden that money from local lawmakers and residents to justify increased spending.

City Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden appeared at Monday night’s meeting to ask Stratton to desist from his line of legal questioning. 

“It’s not appropriate to engage in a Kabuki theater with these gentlemen who are trying to give you facts,” Bolden said. “You’re asking legal questions.” 

Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison tried to steer the conversation away from legal specifics and toward the practical effects of the funding. The question should not be the city’s legal requirement but its obligation to its children, she said, arguing that laying off 200 teachers would be devastating for children’s ability to learn. 

Education funding is set to go up by $1.5 million under Mayor Toni Harp’s proposed budget for the 2014-’15 fiscal year.