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Tuesday, March 26 Local

Bridgeport BOE: Seeking what district needs to survive

BRIDGEPORT — Kindergarten aides are long gone.

So, too, are specialized reading and math teachers, home school coordinators, family resource centers, two alternative education programs and the parents center.

The ranks of support staff, school counselors, facilities, school nurses, central office personnel and even security for the Bridgeport school district have been thinned out considerably.

District funding for a two-person School Volunteer Office that generates hundreds of classroom volunteers was cut this year and exists on one-time donations.

School officials told the city Board of Education’s Finance Committee on Wednesday that there is little left to cut that would not directly impact the district of 20,384 students.

Up to $16 million more than the current $248 million operating budget is needed in the 2019-20 school year, school officials say. Adding kindergarten aides back would cost $3 million on top of that. Another $170,000 would keep the school volunteer office running another year.

“We have reached a point after several years of substantial budget reduction where the district is functioning with a minimal operational structure,” said Marlene Siegel, the district’s chief financial officer. “There are very few areas remaining that would allow for cuts without jeopardizing the core capacity of the district.”

District officials say they have made more than $38 million in personnel and programming cuts over the past three years to absorb contractual increases in salaries and the rising costs of transportation, health care and special education.

One-third of the district budget is spent on special education.

Per-pupil gap

Schools Superintendent Aresta Johnson said one reason special education cost are soaring is that there are not enough regular classroom resources to meet student needs, particularly for those with emotional issues. District-wide, Johnson said, there are about 35 social workers. Hartford has more than double that number, she told the committee.

Last year, Bridgeport spent $14,240 per pupil to Hartford’s $19,616 and New Haven’s $18,380. If Bridgeport schools got what Hartford — a district of similar enrollment and poverty level — got, Siegel said, the district budget would be $122 million higher.

The three member Finance Committee is chaired by Jessica Martinez and includes Maria Pereira and Joseph Lombard, who is new to the school board.

As in the past, the board will appeal to both the city and the state to give it sufficient funds. It is an election year, so the prospects of any increase from the city, let alone a substantial one, are not promising.

Board Chairman John Weldon put the brakes on efforts to rally parent support for the budget through a series of community forums — one in each City Council district — after some complained they were too “political” and not consistent in their message.

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New forums sponsored by community organizations are now being scheduled. As of Thursday, they had yet to be finalized.

$16 million request

Most hope is pinned on the city’s legislative delegation getting the district a one-year injection of funds from the state what would put it on more of an even playing field with other larger urban districts such as Hartford. The ask will be for the full $16 million district officials say is needed, not the $2.5 million penciled in for the district by the state.

“They will be super heroes if they give it to us,” Pereira said. “I will drop to my knees and bow to them if they give us $16 million.”

That is what she said the district needs to survive.

The last time the district found itself at a fiscal breaking point — in 2011 — a majority of that school board threw up their hands and quit, inviting a state takeover. The state Board of Education complied, but the action was later overturned by the state Supreme Court.

As it has in past three years, district officials are creating a budget gap plan. Siegel said the list is not desirable, but a means of reaching a balanced budget. Many of the items have appeared on past lists, only to be rejected.

One idea is to try again to convince labor unions to shorten the school year by two days and take furlough days. Other ideas include getting unions to agree to delay longevity payments their contracts provide and lengthening walking distances for middle school students, thereby cutting school transportation costs.

As many as six teaching positions might be cut if enrollment shrinks enough and a plan to pare down the administration at the Fairchild Wheeler campus — something parents have been led to believe wouldn’t happen — would be revisited. There also could be more central office cuts.

Combined, those changes wouldn’t reach half of a $16 million target.

lclambeck@ctpost.com; twitter/lclambeck

Linda Conner Lambeck|Education Reporter

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