Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon mayor wants education spending cut despite low performance ranking

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 12:39 PM EST

VERNON — Mayor George Apel has told the Board of Education to cut $120,000 from its budget request despite town schools’ poor performance, which School Superintendent Mary P. Conway has described as “abysmal.”

Apel, a Republican who served as school board treasurer for four years until he was elected mayor in November, said in a memorandum that “residents are still struggling” and school funding must be cut.

But at a meeting Monday, board members were not receptive to Apel’s reduction after learning that the Vernon school system has been identified as one of the 30 lowest-performing in the state.

Conway said she hopes to use the ranking as a “lever for change,” but admitted that “it’s certainly embarrassing for us, for the town and the school system to be labeled as one of those 30 districts.”

Board Chairman Dean Houle said that regardless of whether board members agree with Apel’s reduction, the education budget will be $120,000 lower than the board’s approved $48.52 million plan when it goes before the Town Council.

The plan would have increased spending 2.23 percent, which many board members said was warranted after schools received a 0.15 percent increase in 2011-12, and Houle said advocating to the council for more money is the board’s only option.

No date has been set for the board’s presentation to the council, but board member Kyle Percy said parents must attend and demand more school funding if they hope to improve education.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed state budget revisions that would add $50 million to the $1.9 billion Education Cost Sharing grant for the 2012-13 school year, $39.5 million of which would be reserved as incentive for the 30 lowest-performing school systems.

The list also includes East Hartford, East Windsor, Manchester, Windsor, and Windsor Locks, and schools must make significant systemic changes to qualify for additional education dollars.

Vernon could reap an additional $671,000 for 2012-13 if the state Education Department is satisfied, and would be released from the more rigorous standards if schools show sustained, significant change over the next three years.

“This funding does come with strings attached,” Conway said. And while the state’s proposal is technically not official, “in my conversations with the state department, this is going to happen and these are going to be the structures we have to operate under.”

Conway detailed several options for overhauling schools to comply with the new requirements, which include closing a school and re-opening it as a charter school and closing a school entirely and transferring students to other town schools.

She said the most feasible option for Vernon would be to replace principals in the worst schools and put in vigorous evaluation standards for teachers and principals.

Schools also must take data on student learning into account in decision-making, provide additional professional development, improve attendance and graduation rates, provide for more family and community engagement, and increase learning time through Saturday, evening, or vacation classes, Conway said.

Vernon’s graduation rate was 86.7 percent in 2009 and 89.3 percent in 2010, and it “is not in the 90s this year,” Conway said, though data from 2011 is not yet available.

The average graduation rate statewide was 91.3 percent in 2009 and 91.8 percent in 2010. The new standards would require a graduation rate of 96 percent.

The state education commissioner has applied for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law, and Conway said she expects Vernon will receive an exemption some time this summer.

“You’ve seen the scores that we have and they’re abysmal,” Conway said. “What we’ve been doing has not been working. We cannot go on doing the same thing day after day in our classrooms, we have to change.”

Regardless of how the board decides to approach the situation, solutions such as closing schools and adding class hours come with a cost, making Apel’s $120,000 cut even more untenable for parents such as Nancy Krupienski.

“I’m kind of ashamed that Mr. Apel doesn’t think our kids are a priority,” Krupienski said Monday. “He’s kind of out of touch with our generation’s needs. They need technology. They need paraprofessionals in the classrooms.”

While the Town Council has the ability to reduce school funding by a certain dollar amount, it is up to board members to decide where to make specific reductions.

If the council concurs with Apel, board members must figure out a way to reduce the school budget by $120,000, and Conway compiled a list of potential cuts totaling $204,229.

These include two part-time paraprofessionals, which represents $20,000 in savings, a $2,000 cut to summer school paraprofessional hours, $14,760 from gifted and talented programs, the elimination of a nearly $60,000 per year school painter plus $20,000 in paint supplies, and reductions in several other areas.

Houle said the board already is “struggling to support” its student population and board members decided not to take action on any cuts until the council approves a final dollar amount.

Conway has said that students must learn to work more independently and paraprofessionals in general education classrooms are a “luxury.”

But paraprofessional union president Dot Tedeschi said she’s seen first-grade classrooms essentially left on their own while their teacher individually tests students behind a privacy screen because paraprofessional support has been cut.

“Please do not make any further cuts to those of us who work directly with students,” Tedeschi said.

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