Daniel Zhao, Senior Photographer

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont’s newly proposed budget could cost New Haven Public Schools some $9 million over the next two years.

The figure is based on an estimate by district Chief Financial Officer Phillip Penn, following Lamont’s Feb. 10 announcement of a $46 billion budget for the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 fiscal years. The potential $9 million loss can be attributed to a state decision, pending approval, to pause increases in Education Cost Sharing payments and Alliance grants given to lower-performing school districts like New Haven Public Schools.

“That freeze will have a devastating impact on New Haven Public Schools if it gets approved by the Legislature,” Penn said at a recent Board of Education meeting.

Lamont’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Alliance districts are the 33 Connecticut school districts with at least 1,000 students that are grouped together in part because they recorded the lowest scores on the state’s accountability index in 2015-2016. NHPS was designated as an Alliance district and has received program grants, which are calculated as a portion of ECS payments, since 2017. For fiscal year 2021, NHPS received about $142.5 million in ECS funding and an additional $18.0 million in Alliance grant dollars.

Penn added that “if the Alliance grant pays for a staff member, we don’t have a way to pay for a salary increase.”

The ECS funds originally allocated to New Haven Public Schools under Lamont’s proposal equaled $160,469,961 each year from 2021 to 2023. These funds help pay for the district’s general fund expenses, which includes NHPS salaries, instructional supplies and operational services. These payments were expected to increase by about $32 million in 2021-2022 and $64 million in 2022-2023 across the state. But Lamont’s proposed budget pauses ECS funding that was originally meant to last 10 years, from 2019 until 2029 — that funding was originally passed through a bipartisan effort in the state legislature. The Governor’s Office has called on the funds to be delayed for two years and for the program to last until 2029.

The Governor’s budget director Melissa McCaw said at a budget briefing that the administration expects coronavirus emergency relief funds, much of which has been targeted at districts, to help fund district costs.

The potential ECS freeze comes just two years into the 10-year plan to increase education funding for school districts like NHPS, drawing criticism from Penn.

In a community budget meeting last week, Penn noted that the district’s ESSER II grant, a $37.8 million gift from the federal government to address pandemic-related learning loss, cannot be used to pay for general fund expenses, which ECS and the Alliance grant help cover. 26.9 percent of the general fund dollars in the budget for 2022 go towards “education, museums and libraries.”

At last week’s meeting, Penn added that NHPS officials intend to testify at a Connecticut General Assembly Education Committee hearing in early March against the changes to ECS and the Alliance grant. Penn also encouraged community members at the event to contact their state legislature representatives to voice opposition. 

“The call to action is to make sure you reach out to members of your state delegation and voice your opinion that you oppose this,” Penn said at last week’s meeting. “It is not fair to try to close the budget gap within the state on the backs of the urban school children, including New Haven Public Schools.”

In his budget announcement speech, Lamont reiterated that his budget represents “commitment” to the Education Educational Cost Sharing formula. He said in his pre-recorded speech that his office is hopeful that additional federal dollars will allow the state to ensure that “every kid gets the best opportunity at the starting line of life, regardless of ZIP code.”

Apart from changes to K-12 education funding, Lamont’s budget also includes $6 million annually for the Pledge to Advance Connecticut program, a program designed to cover the cost of students going to Connecticut community colleges after receiving federal, state and institutional aid. It also calls for a $3 million increase in state per-pupil funding at charter schools, from $11,250 to $11,525.

The budget allocates $3,059,896,526 to the Connecticut department of education in 2022 compared to the $3,052,656,478 the department will receive for 2021.

State Representative Michael DiMassa, a Democrat who represents parts of New Haven and West Haven and sits on the appropriations committee, told the News that while he does have some concerns with the budget’s proposed changes over cost sharing payments, he believes many of the education proposals will change in negotiations before final approval.

“Some of the things proposed aren’t necessarily even intended by the person proposing to make it to the finish line.” DiMassa told the News. “It’s almost starting from the far corner and they’ll meet us in the middle of the room.”

NHPS has launched parent and community focus groups to help the district decide how to spend ESSER II funds this month.

Alvaro Perpuly | alvaro.perpuly@yale.edu

Christian Robles | christian.robles@yale.edu