Claiming that state education aid has fallen as much as $23 million short during the past dozen years, the city is joining in a lawsuit that aims to force Connecticut to fund its schools more fully and fairly.
With the state Supreme Court expected to rule soon on the case brought by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, city officials said they need to sign on in order to make sure that Bristol shares in the bounty if the ruling opens the door to a massive infusion of cash into strapped school systems across the state.
Superintendent Philip Streifer said that the existing state education cost sharing system is “grossly underfunded” and has failed to address the inequities in public schooling across the state.
For Bristol, a decision that leads to the sort of wholesale change seen in other states where similar legal cases have already prevailed could mean many millions of extra dollars annually to help educate children.
According the project director for the coalition, Dianne Kaplan deVries, Bristol should be spending more $4,400 a year more per student than it currently does in order to meet state goals in reading and math.
With “an adequate and equitable distribution of state aid,” deVries said in a Nov. 25 memorandum, Bristol could deliver a better education and help hard-pressed city taxpayers at the same time.
The city’s Board of Finance gave its blessing this week to spend $10,000 to sign on as a plaintiff in the case – the school system plans to chip in another $1,500 – in order to ensure that if a court winds up ordering more education money flow to struggling school, Bristol would be on the receiving end.
Streifer said that since a ruling could leave out towns that aren’t a party to the case, which has happened in other lawsuits in Connecticut and elsewhere, it would be a mistake to remain on the sidelines.
“It’s important to be part of this team,” Streifer said.
Streifer said it is “highly likely” that the coalition will succeed in convincing the Supreme Court that children deserve a “suitable” education under state law, a standard that existing state funding is apparently too little to meet.
The state argues in its defense that there is no requirement to provide suitable education and that courts should not encroach on legislative power by dictating more funding for schools.
But many towns, including Plainville and New Britain, have joined the coalition’s lawsuit in hopes of forcing the state to cough up more cash.
The three-year-old case, brought on behalf of 15 students and their families across Connecticut, claims that deficient spending is harming their education in many ways and is especially tough on minority children.
Streifer said the state has already pumped an extra $500 million into education funding in response to the suit, money that could be threatened if the budget deficit keeps rising.
But the money is still running short.
In Bristol, according to the coalition, the state provided 46 percent of the city’s educational funds a decade ago. It now provides 43 percent.
It figures the state ought to provide nearly twice as much money to Bristol as it does now, based on the city’s poverty rates and minority enrollment. That’s about $40 million extra each year, though the city’s overall school budget would also have to rise to provide the level of education sought by the nonprofit.
DeVries said that adding Bristol to the case would help build the political support necessary “to achieve a modern, equitable, adequacy-based, student-needs drive state aid formula that is transparent, fully funded and substantially less reliant on local property taxes.”
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