I knew Nikki from a class I was helping to teach. She didn’t like to do anything without knowing at least a little bit about why. She also liked to talk to her friends and giggle, even if a teacher at the front of the room was struggling to explain synecdoche. That’s what she was doing as I waited to talk to her science teacher one day last March. While the Anne Taylor-clad, tired-looking, white, middle-aged woman whom I will call Mrs. B attempted to assign the night’s homework, Nikki turned around and began talking loudly with one of her friends — and they weren’t talking about their homework.
Mrs. B snapped. She turned her head sharply to Nikki. “Do you think it matters to me if you do your homework or not? At the end of the day, I drive back to Guilford. That’s where my life is. If you want to stay stuck in this rotten city, that’s your choice. It doesn’t matter to me,” she said.
I looked at Nikki, afraid that she would burst into tears. She shrugged, seeming unfazed, and bolted to the door seconds later when the bell rang. I awkwardly chased her, asking her if she was OK. “Whatever,” she said. “Lots of the teachers here say stuff like that. It’s no big deal.”
I returned to Mrs. B trying to finish what I had come to do. She sighed, “You know, I didn’t expect this. When I first started teaching, this school was full of middle-class white students from families I understood. Now, I bring cereal and milk to school with me every day because my students come to class hungry every morning. I don’t know how [to] deal with all of this, how to get through to my students anymore. I just want to wait out my two years and retire.”
Some people think New Haven needs new teachers, more teachers, younger teachers — teachers who want to teach New Haven students and are well-compensated for doing so. Many people in the city, including the school superintendent and the Board of Education are anxious to remedy the district’s teacher shortages and inadequate recruiting incentives. New Haven’s starting salaries for teachers are the lowest in the state at $29,692. The district suffers simultaneously from the problem of bewildered teachers such as Mrs. B and the challenge of recruiting high quality new teachers to the profession’s worst paying jobs.
In September, the Board of Education announced a plan to increase starting pay for teachers to $39,500, which will make New Haven competitive with comparable districts, such as Hartford, Bridgeport and Waterbury. But there are major problems. Because cities in Connecticut can only raise money through property taxes, the city must raise an additional $9,808 for every teacher it hires. Connecticut’s tax structure only permits cities to raise money from property taxes. Based on New Haven’s property tax rate, an additional $382,826 dollars worth of property would have to be built for every single new teacher hired. Even with a modest teacher attrition rate of 20 teachers a year, $7 million worth of property would have to be built every year in order to finance this solution to New Haven’s shortage of appropriately qualified teachers. However, trying to raise money by building property is impossible because New Haven is already over-built.
The state funds a large portion of New Haven’s educational costs because of the sheer impossibility of cities financing their own educational systems under the current tax structure. However, at a moment when the need for change within New Haven’s schools — not just on the surface — is clearer then ever, Gov. John G. Rowland’s administration reduced its aid during the last budget cycle by several million dollars. Increased cuts in absolute dollars are also scheduled for the upcoming fiscal year. The city already faces a large budget deficit during the upcoming year; additional state cuts will lead to further reduced parks, libraries and community services. Other cities are equally devastated by Connecticut’s tax structure. Last year, Hartford was forced to close an entire elementary school and reduce kindergarten to half-day. Other cities cut the size of their police and fire departments, reducing their ability to perform the most basic services expected of a municipality. How will the teacher problem be solved?
Connecticut’s tax structure incapacitates its cities. The state’s urban centers serve as culturally dynamic and dense pockets of population that service the state as a whole. However, a tax structure based entirely on property combined with severe cuts in state-aid threatens the vibrancy of Connecticut’s urban core, the significant strides New Haven has made and the capacity of cities like New Haven to solve the major problems confronting them. The tax structure under the current state administration condemns cities to economic marginality and forces them to fail their citizens in providing even the most basic of services — protection and a quality education. This is not just about Nikki or Mrs. B or teachers. How will the city combat police brutality if it is forced to fire the people who work with communities to create community-based policing strategies? How will the city focus on recruiting investors if it can’t even continue to ensure the security of property from fire because of a reduced fire department? This is about how the current system incapacitates cities from forging ahead with the policies that will transform them from impoverished centers into complete, economically thriving communities.
New Haven and all of Connecticut’s cities need a change. Bill Curry is running for governor. One of his major ideas is reforming Connecticut’s tax structure. Tomorrow is election day. Go get your vote on.
Shonu Gandhi is a senior in Saybrook College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.