Thursday, April 25, 2024

Stratford’s Acting Superintendent Unveils Impact Of Potential BOE Budget Reductions

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Submitted By: Stratford Democratic Town Committee

The pulse of a thriving community is its public school system, the linchpin of education and opportunity for future generations. However, for the past 10 or more years, Stratford has struggled with chronic underfunding of our public schools. Each year, the battle for funding rages on, and resources wane, consequently, creating a gloomy prospect for our children and the vitality of our town. Underfunding forces our schools to make painful sacrifices, from laying off experienced teachers to eliminating programs. Class sizes expand, and our children are denied the personalized attention they need. These cuts have a cascading effect year after year.

On February 5, 2024, Acting Superintendent of Schools, Heather Borges, unveiled the proposed budget for the 2024-2025 academic year before the Board of Education’s Finance Committee. With a 6.69% increase compared to the current year’s budget, Borges meticulously outlined the factors driving this escalation. Among them were the depletion of ESSER grant funds, increase in wages and benefits, rising Special Education costs, and the implementation of a newly mandated state reading program. Borges provided detailed insights into how these elements collectively influenced the budgetary landscape, offering a comprehensive perspective to the committee.

However, during the committee’s subsequent meeting on February 12th, Mr. Chris Pia (R), who recently concluded a six-year tenure on the Town Council where he opposed fully funding the BOE, now assumes a role on the BOE Finance Committee. He requested Acting Superintendent Ms. Borges and her team develop three additional budget scenarios. These scenarios would entail 5.5%, 4.5%, and 3.5% increases respectively, amounting to staggering cuts of 18%, 33%, and 49% from the originally proposed budget.

Why did he select those particular scenarios? Given Mr. Pia’s close ties to both the mayor and the chair of the Stratford Republican Town Committee, we harbor skepticism regarding the purported randomness of these percentages. Mayor Hoydick has never gone above a 2.67% increase for the Board of Education since taking office. The BOE budget finds itself under intense scrutiny every year, while other departmental budget requests breeze through with minimal scrutiny. It’s worth pointing out that the BOE stands as the largest town department and employer, boasting approximately 1,200 staff and teachers, a significant portion of whom are residents and taxpayers within the town.

The initial budget proposal was crafted to guarantee sufficient funding for our schools, aiming to provide essential support for our students’ éducationnel journey. It’s crucial to grasp the potentially grave consequences these proposed cuts could inflict upon our schools, posing a significant threat to the educational experience of Stratford’s students.

Upon reconvening on February 21st, the Finance Committee witnessed the presentation of two out of the requested scenarios by Ms. Borges and her team, who adamantly refused to entertain the presentation of a 3.5% scenario, recognizing the catastrophic implications it would have on the entire school system.

The 5.5% plan entails:

  • Cutting Special Education supplies
  • Eliminating the Assistant Principal role at Lordship Elementary School
  • Eliminating the Assistant Principal position at Franklin Elementary School
  • Cutting the Library Teacher position at Stratford High School
  • Cutting the Library Teacher position at Bunnell High School
  • Eliminating all elementary school Library Teacher positions
  • Eliminate the District Floater Secretary position
  • Decreasing funding for textbooks
  • Scaling back funding for office supplies across all schools and Central Office

The 4.37% plan encompasses all cuts outlined in the 5.5% plan, with additional reductions including:

  • Removing all Reading Coaches at elementary schools
  • Eliminating several elementary school Math Coaches
  • Eliminating two Supervisor positions, although the plan does not specify which ones. These could potentially include any of the following positions:
  • Supervisor of K-12 STEM, CTE, and Enrichment
  • Supervisor of preK-12 Literacy, K-12 Social Studies Coordinator (also responsible for overseeing the Parents Place Family Resource Center)
  • Supervisor of 504, School Counseling, and Assessments
  • Supervisor of K-12 Fine Arts, Music, PE, and Health

The Curious Absence of Superintendent Dr. Uyi Osunde in the BOE Budgeting Process

On Monday, February 26th, the BOE Finance Committee will convene for what appears to be its final budget meeting before presenting the budget to the full Board of Education for a vote. Throughout this entire process, input from Superintendent Dr. Osunde has been absent, who is still on administrative leave. This absence stems from a decision made during a special BOE meeting on December 21, 2023, where the four Republican members of the board voted to place Dr. Osunde on administrative leave following charges related to a breach of peace in a family matter. The board chair announced intentions to conduct a comprehensive investigation, to be overseen by Richard J. Burturla of Berchem Moses PC Attorneys and Counselors at Law. In a prepared statement, Republican board chair Mike Henrick emphasized that Dr. Osunde was to have no contact with school personnel or board members.

On January 31, 2024, the breach of peace charge against Dr. Osunde was dismissed in New Haven courts. Despite this development, the board chair persisted in keeping him on administrative leave, citing an ongoing internal investigation. This decision has raised significant questions regarding the nature and purpose of this investigation. Multiple organizations, including the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents and the Greater Bridgeport NAACP, have publicly urged the Board of Education to reinstate Dr. Osunde. However, Mr. Henrick has steadfastly refused to address the matter as a board, instead collaborating with political figures to prolong the investigation in what appears to be an attempt to gather incriminating evidence against the superintendent.

This begs the question: at what cost to our town? How much of the current education budget must be allocated to fund this investigation? And what essential programs or staffing positions will inevitably suffer as a result of this unnecessary expenditure?

 The Impact of Underfunded Schools and Stratford’s Economic Quandary

Beyond its immediate repercussions, the continued underfunding of our public schools imposes a heavy toll on the town’s economy. When we shortchange our schools, we jeopardize our economic future, stifling the very engine of progress that powers us forward. Poorly funded schools will deter businesses from moving to town, hindering economic development and job creation for our residents. This can also trigger an exodus of school staff.

The overall appeal of a community is closely tied to the quality of its schools. Families often prioritize living in areas with reputable schools to provide the best opportunities for their children. If our schools are poorly funded, we cannot attract homebuyers, and we will not have the qualified workers to attract potential businesses who are considering relocation. Property values will stagnate, leading to less tax revenue for the town, forcing it to raise taxes to make up for the deficit. Investing in education is not only essential for the success of individual students but also for the overall health and vitality of the local economy.

 Stratford’s Education Funding Has Been A Pawn in Political Gamesmanship

For decades, influential figures within the Stratford Republican administration have wielded power from the shadows, dictating the actions of both Republican officials and Democrats who have chosen to align with them, willingly executing their directives. This surreptitious orchestration extends to the mayor’s administration, which has meticulously manipulated the Board of Education, systematically underfunding our schools while conveniently evading tax increases. This strategic maneuver allows the mayor to campaign on a platform of fiscal responsibility, despite the detrimental impact on education funding. Sources have cited Lou Decilio, chair of the Stratford Republican Town Committee, making bold statements in 2020. He was quoted as saying, “..all bets are off” should the BOE fail to submit a budget proposal deemed acceptable by him to the council. Additionally, Decilio asserted, “We are not losing the council or the mayor’s office…I understand the importance of retaining the council majority.”

Our Democratic BOE members, Lisa Caroll-Fabian, Jill D’Angelo Powers, and Chris Cormier, campaigned on a platform anchored in principles of fairness, justice, and transparency. They passionately champion the belief that our students must remain at the forefront of their efforts as board members. Despite being in the minority on the board, they persist in their unwavering commitment to uphold what is just and equitable. Unfettered by external directives, they exercise their independent judgment and vote according to their conscience. 

During the February 21st meeting, board member Lisa Caroll-Fabian delivered a powerful statement, declaring, “Our students deserve better…It is our responsibility to ensure that they receive the resources and assistance necessary to thrive. As Board of Education members, our foremost duty is not simply to meet town-imposed financial targets but to advocate for a budget that prioritizes the educational needs of our students.”

 A Call to Action

We strongly encourage everyone to attend the Board of Education Finance Committee meeting scheduled for Monday, February 26th, at 6:00 PM in the auditorium of Stratford High School. Following the finance meeting, at 7:15 PM, the Board of Education will convene for its regular monthly meeting, where they are likely to vote on sending the budget to the mayor. During the public forum segment of the meeting, community members are welcome to voice their concerns. We recommend arriving early to sign up and ensure your opportunity to speak out. Your participation is vital in shaping the future of our education system.

Underfunding perpetuates an insidious cycle of inequality, deepening the abyss between the haves and have-nots. Our students facing the greatest challenges will continue to suffer as they are denied access to the resources they need to succeed. Increasingly, families who can afford it will pull their children out of Stratford Public Schools in favor of private schools, while our economically disadvantaged students and our students with high needs are left to languish in the shadows of neglect. 

The time for complacency is over. As stewards of our children’s future, we must rise to the challenge and demand better for our schools. Each of us has a role to play in safeguarding the promise of education and nurturing the minds and talents of the next generation. Only by investing in education today can we ensure a brighter tomorrow for generations to come. We cannot allow the Republicans to play politics with our children’s future.

Editor’s Note: The Stratford Crier is publishing the Stratford Democratic Town Committee Op-Ed despite their Call to Action for February 26th has passed.  The information contained in the Op-Ed is relevant to our focus on the BOE this week. 

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