From the Founders II
Is the School Budget Equitable?
Surely, one of the most crucial and politically sensitive responsibilities of municipal government is the equitable delivery of quality education. Greenwich has had an excellent reputation in this regard, with neighborhood schools that have drawn many fine families to move here in spite of the lofty price of our real estate. In recent months, however, there have been questions about whether the division of our financial resources among our public schools is equitable, and whether or not taxpayers and parents in each of our districts are getting what they should for their money. According to one member of the Board of Education, these questions arise because of a lack of transparency in the BOE budget and a concerted effort on the part of school superintendent Betty Sternberg to allocate a disproportionate part of the overall budget to magnet schools.
Dr. Sternberg arrived on our doorstep fresh from her position as State Commissioner of Education in Hartford with a state mandate to create racial balance in our schools where called for, and a mission to achieve it by a discretionary application of the budget in favor of magnet schools. By creating a special curriculum with courses not available in other schools, she aims to encourage nonminority students to leave elementary schools in their neighborhoods to attend one of the two racially imbalanced schools, namely Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon. This method of achieving the levels of racial balance specified in the Connecticut state statute is both costly and questionably effective or legal.
The State Department of Education has put a dozen towns on notice that they have racially imbalanced schools, in which minorities exceed by more than 25 percent their own percentage of the population in the district. Towns are ordered to take corrective action; yet, in view of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Seattle and Louisville prohibiting the use of race as criteria for placing students, there is a serious question whether the state statute is constitutional. Marianna Ponns Cohen, a newly elected member of the Board of Education and lawyer, with corporate as well as constitutional law experience, who voted against the board’s proposed budget, believes it is not likely to pass muster under the equal protection clause of our federal Constitution. While Connecticut’s racial balance statute has yet to be tested in court, one thing is clear — federal law preempts state law. Meanwhile, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has studiously avoided issuing an interpretation as to whether the Connecticut racial balance statute was indeed rendered unconstitutional by the Supreme Court’s Seattle case. Ms. Cohen is further concerned that, under the very same Connecticut statute, by creating unequal educational opportunities within the school district and allocating inequitable and disproportionate funding for facilities not available to others, the town could become liable in suits based on equal opportunity.
To lend an aura of popular support for this program, Dr. Sternberg created the RISE committee whose members were asked to be available to meet several times over last summer to study and recommend ways to achieve racial balance and to address declining enrollment. But with an unpredicted increase in the student population, the latter was no longer a problem, and the sole issue became racial balancing. Since more than half of the committee members worked for or were connected in other ways with the superintendent, and a third of its members were not even residents of Greenwich, this committee could hardly be called representative. According to one member, after the first meeting in June, the next meeting was not until August when members were presented with a list of options to vote on — a list drawn up by the administration without consulting with the committee. The result was predetermined. It was virtually impossible to avoid choosing an option that didn’t involve magnet schools. A number of members representing the community at large were outraged by what they viewed as a rigged process.
Supporting magnet schools is all well and good as long as there is an equitable allocation of resources among all the schools as required by law (Section 10-220 of the Connecticut state statute). The Board of Education’s own figures for last year show that New Lebanon, for example, receives $14,370 per student while Riverside receives $7,688 — a two to one ratio. Part of the reason for this is that the student population of New Lebanon is half that of Riverside. Additional costs may also be justified based on need — teaching English as a second language (ESL) courses, for example. But what is not reflected in the magnet school numbers are the federal, state and private funds, including Title 1, which add well over one million dollars each to the budgets of the two current magnet schools plus New Lebanon, proposed to become another magnet. Title 1 is designed to make supplemental funds available to schools in low income areas with high needs assessments. Taking into account all supplemental federal, state and private funds, expenditures per student at New Lebanon increase to a conservatively estimated $21,000!
It should be noted that since taxpayer money is not involved, federal and state contributions need not be considered in presentations to the BET, but they clearly should be a factor in determining equitable allocation of resources within a district. Also questioned is whether significant shifts of money from the magnet school budgets into the BOE central office account was appropriate, and whether this was due to a desire to lessen the reported funding of the magnet schools.
A lawyer hired by the BOE has offered an opinion that superintendents have a degree of latitude in determining what is “equitable.” Betty Sternberg has made a determined effort to make this latitude as broad as possible. However, she is an unelected official, and there should be reasonable limits to this power. This is especially important when said official has demonstrated an open antagonism toward those town residents who happen not to agree with her philosophy.
At the heart of the matter is the threat that many of our neighborhood schools are coming out second best under a program that greatly favors a select few schools and programs. While Betty Sternberg no doubt believes in the sanctity of her mission, we believe she has lost sight of what is fair for the rest of the student population. She provided no evidence to her RISE committee, for example, that increasing the racial mix in schools raises the overall academic performance of the student body. Interestingly, there is also opposition to Dr. Sternberg’s programs from minority families that want to keep their children in their own familiar neighborhoods. When presenting her program to a Hispanic audience at New Lebanon school, one member listened patiently for some time, then was heard to say, “Oh, we get it! You don’t want us here!”
We believe the BOE should first wait for the courts to decide whether the state statute is constitutional and meanwhile concentrate its efforts and money on improving the educational process in all our schools and meet the needs of all our children so that we don’t end up with a two-class educational system.