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Gardner Expels Finch On Education Commitment

May 7th, 2014 · 8 Comments · Analysis and Comment, Education

Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner

Board of Education member Howard Gardner takes the wood to Bill Finch about the mayor’s commitment to city schools. In a commentary also published by the CT Post, Gardner condemns the “education mayor” for circumventing the state’s Minimum Budget Requirement to fund schools.

The Bridgeport Board of Education (BBOE) is burdened with a teaching/learning infrastructure that has been purposely and systematically neglected. The current level of financial support and lack of resources within this education system is tantamount to being on life support. By the State of Connecticut Department of Education’s own admission, the Bridgeport School System is under budgeted by approximately $45 million. At the same time the BBOE finds itself in mortal combat with a city that consistently underfunds education.

Every City and town is obligated to bear its share of the cost of educating the children in its jurisdiction; the majority of the cost being borne by the state government based on the state’s Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula. This is law as delineated by the state’s general statues. There is a built-in growth percentage that is added to the overall education budget each year. This is the time of year in which cities and towns across the state determine and allocate their incremental funds toward the Minimum Budget Requirement (MBR)–total education cost. With the looming deadline for the finalization of next year budgets for municipalities and education boards across the state, all cities and towns have agreed to meet their MBR as determined by the State Board of Education. That is, all cities and towns with one notable exception … yes, you guessed correctly–Bridgeport.

For the past three years Mayor Finch’s administration has done everything in its power to circumnavigate the stipulated MBR. Their maneuvering has ranged from substituting in-kind services in lieu of cash contribution, crying broke to the state and just flat-out refusing to make payments as in the 2013-2014 school year.

We are amazed at this reticence from a mayor who once referred to himself as the “Education” Mayor. I guess “Education” in this case doesn’t mean the traditional public school system, because it is bleatingly obvious that the Mayor has little or no commitment to this institution. This is not a gratuitous comment on the part of the writer of this op-ed. I have some history with the Mayor with regard to education reform.

Five years ago I was invited to join a newly formed education reform initiative comprised of Mayor Finch, then Superintendent John Ramos, then Board of Ed chair Barbara Bellinger, other community leaders, heads of local social service organizations, and business leaders. This organization was founded on the pretext of bolstering the performance of the Bridgeport Public School System, but operated under a hidden agenda shared only by a clandestine subgroup comprised of Meghan Lowney, Nate Snow and Robert Francis, and blessed by the Mayor. Suspecting that the purported agenda was not genuine, I resigned from Bridgeport Partner for Student Success (BPSS), a.k.a., Excel Bridgeport.

I walked away from BPSS over four years ago not having a complete grasp of the hidden agenda. However, subsequent chain of events have made its goals crystal clear–allow the Bridgeport Public School to be decimated, undermined; and then, point to the failure of the traditional public school system in Bridgeport. On that premise, they would build a case for alternative solutions–charter schools and corporation-based educational models. In hindsight one can deduce the various attempts to carry out this diabolical plot: the illegal takeover of an elected BBOE, the failed attempt at a charter change referendum and the hiring of Paul Vallas (public school destroyer extraordinaire).

For his efforts in balancing the BBOE’s budget, Mr. Vallas might have left here as a hero to some; however, his results came with heavy casualty to the district’s teaching/learning resources. This is the stark reality of Mr. Vallas’ legacy–the district has 72 less certified staff, including 27 in special education, than we had four years ago. Music, arts and other electives are non-existing at our high schools. The ratio of student to social workers and guidance counselor is so high that these professionals are overburdened to the point of paralysis. Many high school students do not have textbooks for core subjects. A $10 million expenditure on new curriculum material, purchased two years ago, remains in original packages unused. All this under the watch of a BBOE controlled by the Education Mayor, who this year refuses to provide the school district with $3.3 million MBR (monetary appropriation) as stipulated by the State of Connecticut General Statues. Failure by the city to meets its obligation potentially could forfeit the school district $16 million in cash over current and next two fiscal cycles should the state impose ECS penalties for the city not meeting the MBR.

This MBR shortfall compounds the financial woes of a district that spent $13,655 per child versus New Haven’s $16,805, and Hartford’s $17,928. Another way to understand this disparity: if the Bridgeport School district was given additional financial resources to bring it to full parity with New Haven and Hartford, the district would have an additional $66 million or $90 million more per year, respectively.

With this level of under-funding and given the fact that our district is operating with a shortage of 72 certified staff, it is amazing that the system functions at all. All hail, and hats off to the dedicated teachers and administrators who do so much with so little.

Under these conditions, how can the Mayor balk at providing the Minimum Budget Requirement? Is this the same Mayor who has committed to paying $477,000 rent for a proposed charter school for which the city has no financial obligation? This is the same Mayor who stated years ago during a BPSS meeting that he had the ability to bring money into the city for education, but would not do so while the wrong people were on the BBOE. How disingenuous. Great attitude–let the kids suffer because I don’t like the composition of the board.

Well somewhere between the charter change referendum defeat, a court ruling reversing the illegal takeover of the BBOE, the resounding defeat of party-backed board candidates and the timely departure of the luminary Paul Vallas, the “Education” mayor has been MIA. Has anybody seen the Education Mayor?

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • gailj2

    Wake up all you OIB commentators. This was not a Carmen Lopez op-ed. This was Howard Gardner who sits on the BOE. So the Budget Hearing is Tuesday, will the Mayor find cash to properly fund our schools? I must be dreaming. No one but me had a reaction to what Howard wrote? Well I think he spoke truth, but truth that began before Mayor Finch. Truth that has accelerated under Finch. If we cannot find the tax dollars to properly fund our schools, then Mayor Finch needs to lead a march on the State to meet its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education by fixing the way schools are funded. The Property Tax system cannot work for our Bridgeport children. But instead Mayor Finch is into smoke and mirrors, secret maneuvers and the ideas of ConnCAN’s Board of financial titans who lack public education credentials but think “they know best” how to make urban district children “excel” in school. Democracy needs true public schools, not re-segregation of our schools so some lucky ones get better everything and if those admitted don’t toe the line, can be sent packing back to the neighborhood schools. Let’s solve this together. At least let’s not let Hartford and New Haven do a better job in per-pupil spending than we do in Bridgeport.

    • BOE SPY

      Democracy needs an educated populace. How they get that way is irrelevant. I would dare to say the public schools in BPT are not achieving this goal.

  • Pete Spain

    gailj2–so well put.

    As Gardner points out convincingly … it’s fraudulent for Finch to claim the mantel of “education mayor” when …

    Finch is on record as being openly hostile to the MBR, agreeing in writing last year to meet the MBR this year but then, while claiming on record to have put it to bed, underfunding it by millions once again.

    In response, interim superintendent Rabinowitz called an emergency meeting regarding the mayor’s underfunding of the MBR. Finch was a no-show at that meeting on April 11. Both the state commissioner of education and the state budget director traveled down from Hartford to meet with Rabinowitz for that emergency meeting … but Finch couldn’t make it. He makes the monumental mess, and leaves it to others to clean up–at the real risk of losing millions in state funding for our public schools.

    Source: www .ctpost.com/default/article/City-funding-addressed-in-school-budget-meeting-5396687.php

    Just a month prior, Finch was up in Hartford telling a legislative committee he needs more state funding for schools:
    “The worst part about my job is putting my kids on a bus every morning to a failing school.”

    Source: www .ctpost.com/news/article/Big-city-mayors-seek-more-state-aid-5331217.php

    The worst part of it really is he has a job as our mayor.

  • BOE SPY

    Again, the MBR. He says ‘This MBR shortfall compounds the financial woes of a district that spent $13,655 per child versus New Haven’s $16,805, and Hartford’s $17,928.’
    We all know BPT is 161 of 164 in the state.
    www .schooldigger.com/go/CT/districtrank.aspx
    at $13,655/student. New Haven is 156 and Hartford is 160. Really? Hartford spends 50% more than BPT and is one place better, for all intents and purposes the same. One lucky guess on the test next year and we pass Hartford. Who in town wants to have a 15 mil? tax increase so BPT can move from 161 to 155? The mayor should give the schools what they are due but to say this is why our schools suck just is not true. He should give the schools the $250 mil they want, but take back for every kid who does not graduate. We are paying them to produce high school graduates.
    This is just another Carmen Lopez op-ed. You just can’t recognize her under the beard.

    • Baffled in Bridgeport

      This is a Howard Gardner op-ed. He has an independent mind if you know him at all. I thought it was a fair history and gave a clear picture without any of the stridency we hear from others. His point, btw, wasn’t just about the money. It’s about the deception, subterfuge and chaos around these last years–Finch needs to be held accountable for all of that–plus the MBR. I just can’t figure out how he gets up and faces himself in the mirror every day–or maybe he gave that up a few years back.

  • John Marshall Lee

    First, congratulations to Howard Gardner as a BOE member for raising his voice (or in this case his pen) to advocate for funding from a municipal leader who has not been fair or square with his citizenry.
    When it was Charter Reform, he said he was accountable, and he was clearly not, and the public told him so in rejecting his power to appoint to the BOE.
    Then it was a “reforming and budget balancing Superintendent” from out of town who was attacked from the outset for anything he did, as well as many things he never did. The Mayor never had his back though Superintendent Vallas found ways to expand the amount of money from the State during his 26 months as well as expand School building projects and advance their timetables.

    So the Mayor produces a DEAD ON ARRIVAL budget to the City Council (who cannot find a purpose for their Education subcommittee??) because only $1.6 Million of cash is there along with $8.2 Million of In Kind. Looks generous? It isn’t and it jeopardizes the current year (2014) funding agreement framed last November as well as next year’s settlement. Agreement brings $2.4 Million of added State money to assist the City. Yet the Mayor is obtuse … doesn’t show up to explain … shows his lack of accountability … shows why he is driving our school bus off a cliff. He is not to be trusted and all folks who have work to do, like the new BOE, will learn what it is like to get isolated by a Mayor who does not care. Time will tell.

  • John Marshall Lee

    But Howard did get his OP ED in the CT Post while we cannot find media willing to take our story on illegal behavior by the City Council. We have the records and connect them for the 15 Council persons who used taxpayer funds to pay to favored entities from an account meant for Other Legislative Services. And there were none. And it was a primary year for many and election year for all. And it was wrong. Is OIB the only place where this type of info can appear, UNTIL IT BECOMES A COURT ACTION, perhaps? Time will tell.

  • BOE SPY

    JML–you know a lot about this stuff. Do you know off the top of your head what city has the lowest per-student budget? BPT is near the bottom of the list as far as performance but what city is at the bottom of the list as far as per-student spending and where does that school system rank? That would be interesting to know as far as the spending=performance argument goes.
    Many points of the story make no sense.
    ‘By the State of Connecticut Department of Education’s own admission, the Bridgeport School System is under budgeted by approximately $45 million.’ How do they get this number? The BOE set their budget at $250mil. Finch shorted them ~$10 mil, including services that do have some value, i.e., I promise to give you $80/mo. but instead I pay your cable bill, the difference to you would be a wash. The cash shortage is $1-2 mil and the state ponied up $2.3 mil. The BOE would seem to be fully funded. Is this correct?
    Again with the conspiracy theories. ‘I walked away from BPSS over four years ago not having a complete grasp of the hidden agenda.’ Now, 4-5 schools costing the BOE $2-3 mil over the next five years is going to crush a system with a $250 mil budget? Don’t forget, if those students went to a magnet school the busing cost would be the same. Charter schools take away money but also take away students at a cost of $13.6K each. They reduce overcrowding and it would have cost the BOE way more to build and staff those schools.
    The Vallas thing has been beaten to death. The fact is, something had to be done. Vallas did what he did. The budget was balanced. Gardner lists what Vallas did but does not say what he should have done, i.e., I am going to lose my house. To avoid this I cancel my cable. This draws criticism from my family. They suggest I should have cancelled the internet instead. Gardner should approach this issue in the same way. Don’t forget what we were looking at before Vallas came.
    ‘This is the same Mayor who stated years ago during a BPSS meeting that he had the ability to bring money into the city for education.’ This MBR debacle did just bring $2.3 mil from the state. Maybe the entire thing is just a clever ploy to squeeze money from the state. Politics is a game and you need to play inside the ‘stick and carrot’ rules. If you want money from someone else it often comes with strings attached. You put in these charters and I give you $2.3 mil. Gardner says BPSS wants to gut the public schools but what would gut our schools faster; two more charters or BOE reckless spending coupled with thumbing your nose at the deals that would provide aid, even if you need to accept some compromise?
    These people fought hard to keep the mayor out of the BOE. Now they hold the reigns of control and want to hold Finch responsible for the district’s problems. They blame Vallas and the state as well, but mostly Finch. This tactic is getting a little long in the tooth. The way I see it, Finch is, at most, $10 mil over $250 mil responsible for any BOE failures. Did they not know what the BOE’s state of affairs was when they fought for the BOE? Continually whining about what Finch is not doing just distracts us from what they ARE doing. At some point you just have to accept where you are now and plan on where to go from here. Vallas had hard choices to make at the time. Those choices may look easy depending on how things go in the future. It is going to be a long time before money wells up from the ground. If anything, what they have now may be a goldmine compare with what they may get anytime in the near future, barring any miracles. It is not like Finch or BPT has all the money in the world to spend on whatever we want. The truth is we really do not know how much BPT has or what it gets spent on but it is not a lot. The entire city budget is $522.9 million. The BOE gets ~1/2 of that to manage ~22K citizens. The needs of the other 124K citizens cost the other half.

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