BRISTOL – Bristol politicians met with local educational leaders Saturday morning to discuss special education funding and other areas of concern going into the next legislative session.
“We are seeing a changed landscape at the capitol this year, with a new governor and a new education chair,” said Chris Wilson, chair of the Bristol Board of Education. “It is more important than ever that we have this opportunity for our community leaders to meet with our legislators.”
The “legislative workshop” was attended by members of the Board of Education, Sen. Henri Martin (R-Bristol, Harwinton, Plainville, Plymouth and Thomaston), Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato (R-Bristol) and Rep. Chris Ziogas (D-Bristol). Also present were Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, Superintendent of Schools Susan Moreau, City Councilors Peter Kelley and Dave Preleski, Michael Dietter, director of special services in the Bristol Public Schools and Sheila McKay, senior staff associate for government relations with The Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE).
Martin said that he was expecting “a lot of changes” during this session. These included potential changes to the education cost sharing formula, a discussion about tolls and family medical leave.
“The governor-elect is presenting us with his priorities and we’re in ‘wait and see mode’,” he said. “I hope he doesn’t do anything to education cost sharing. Special education costs also need to be adjusted. It seemed like you’re carrying a lot more of the burden compared to other communities and we need to find something more balanced.”
Pavalock-D’Amato said that no one has seen Ned Lamont’s proposed budget yet, and that legislators would have more of an idea of what to expect after seeing it. She said that starting this Wednesday, the various committees will be setting their agendas.
“Feel free to email me and let me know what you think of a bill – it is very helpful,” she said to the local leaders. “I email Sue Moreau in the middle of the night all the time.”
Ziogas said that he was “not sure what to expect” because there are “a lot of moving parts and people at play.” However, he assured those at the meeting that “education money is ‘pretty sacred.’”
Wilson said that it is important for local education leaders to go to public hearings and give input as well.
“The biggest problem for local districts is the huge variability of special education costs,” he said. “10 years ago, we received grant money which paid for 90 percent of excess costs and now it covers more like 65 percent.”
McKay laid out CABE’s legislative priorities for the coming session and said that the organization was meeting with the Lamont administration to discuss the finer points.
During the discussion, Ziogas said that some of his concerns are that there are “a lot of Spanish speaking kids and not a lot of Spanish teachers” and non-citizens being unable to get through college even if they are bright and motivated.
“We hired more Hispanic and African American teachers this year than ever before,” said Moreau. “We know that it is important for students to see people who look like them as teachers so they have something they can aspire to.”
Ziogas also said that another of his concerns as an “explosion” of special education identifications.
“The rate across the country has been creeping up ever so slightly, 1 to 1.3 percent a year,” said Dietter. “There are links between this increase and socio-economic conditions and poverty. The state average is that 15 percent of students are special education and Bristol is just below 20 percent.”
Dietter said that the Bristol school system follows stringent state and federal guidelines for identifying special education students and attempts to intervene early when students need help if possible.
Preleski said that the variability of special education costs make it extremely difficult for municipalities to budget.
“We need to figure out a system for fixing cost and creating some predictability,” he said. “It has to be part of the agenda.”
Wilson acknowledged that special education costs are a large issue but said that there is no easy fix.
“For the last 10 years, any increase in our budget has gone toward special education so we haven’t been able to support regular education and work to close achievement gaps,” he said. “It puts us in a box where we can’t make the investments that we want to. It’s a really tough situation to be in.”
At the end of the meeting, Zoppo-Sassu thanked those who attended. She said that the meeting led to “good conversations” and was “very valuable and educational.”
Brian M. Johnson can be reached at 860-973-1806 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CABE’s list of legislative priorities:
. Invest in programs that promote cultural competency and in the training, hiring and retention of educators from diverse backgrounds, including alternative routes to certification
. Remove barriers to developmentally appropriate personalized learning to accelerate and enhance student achievement and support low performing students
. Develop and fund a comprehensive education funding system that is fair, equitable and predictable to include appropriate support for special education English learners and children living in poverty
. Avoid the transfer of state obligations to local property taxpayers
. Limit local district funding responsibility for out of district special education costs and increase state reimbursement
. Remove mandates that fail to promote student achievement
. Remove barriers and support incentives for voluntary inter-district collaboration that provides efficiencies and program enhancements through shared services
. Incorporate in existing high school graduation requirements opportunities for business/school partnerships to meet global workforce needs