Sal Pascarella and Mark Benigni Urban schools face unique challenges
The Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents is a coalition of public school superintendents from the state’s neediest districts. While we represent only 20 communities, we educate nearly half of the state’s population of students.
Our districts are responsible for educating Connecticut’s most diverse communities. We educate larger numbers of students in poverty than other districts in the state. We often have higher percentages of special needs students — our kids deal not only with the challenges of educational attainment, but also must deal with issues like hunger, homelessness, trauma, and more. Educating these populations of kids takes more resources and specialized interventions.
We’ve worked tirelessly to make our schools a safe haven for our students, and to make sure that we can meet more than just their educational needs. Unfortunately, the way Connecticut schools are funded is the biggest obstacle to our success.
We struggle with predictability. We have a state budget and city budgets that are often determined months past deadline, resulting in us planning for our school year while blind to what resources will actually be available. Could you plan your family budget without knowing how much money will come into your household each month? It’s virtually impossible to do this and creates fear and uncertainty among school and district staff.
We struggle with fairness. Increasing legislative requirement without resources, therefore eroding core instruction and increasing equity and access for urban students, undermines their access to a fundamentally basic education. Our cities do not have the luxury of levying extensive local taxes, and so when cuts are made by the state, our students feel the impact directly, in terms of cuts to services and teaching staff.
We struggle with regulatory burdens. Legislative initiatives are often well intended, but our districts are disproportionately burdened by the impact of unfunded mandates. As the state passes more and more laws that dictate what we must do, rarely does it come with funding attached. We cannot afford to be saddled by these burdensome requirements that take away from instructional resources.
With new governing administrations comes fear that the state will reinvent the wheel, and that progress will be disrupted due to change for change’s sake. Specifically, our urban school districts have seen success as a direct result of a program initiated recently by state leaders: the Alliance District program. This was created specifically to target high-need school districts like ours, and to ensure additional resources are appropriated and tied to specific interventions. Furthermore, these funds are now embedded in our districts’ core functions and so any elimination would result in painful cuts to services and programs that would mean layoffs and direct impacts on students. The Alliance District program demonstrated a recognition that urban school districts have challenges that require special intervention, and we are hopeful that our incoming state leaders keep these programs going into the next biennium.
We know that times are tough in Connecticut. As urban superintendents it’s our job to demand that, even during tough times, we put students first. We hope that incoming state leaders share our commitment to ensuring that our state’s most vulnerable children are uniquely cared for and prioritized in the state budget. They are depending on all of us to stand up for them.
Sal Pascarella, Superintendent of Danbury Public Schools, and Mark Benigni, Superintendent of Meriden Public Schools, are Co-Chairmen of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents. This opinion was first published in CTMirror.org.