Republican Mayor Erin Stewart and Merrill Gay, her Democratic challenger in the November election, have at least one point of agreement: The school system’s budget.
“What’s the number one problem? Obviously, the answer is funding,” Stewart told the audience at a candidates’ forum Thursday afternoon. “That’s something the two of us can see eye to eye on.”
“The issue of under funding our schools has ongoing impact,” Gay said. “It’s why our real estate values are so low.”
The crowd of mostly teachers and classroom aides applauded when both candidates said they understand that the school system needs more money and staff to serve its students, who come from some of the poorest families in Connecticut.
Neither Stewart nor Gay, however, could suggest any immediate path to improving conditions. They both endorsed the idea of New Britain getting a bigger share of state education aid, but neither one is proposing a local tax increase to directly boost the education budget.
In a response that she acknowledged wouldn’t please the audience, Stewart said she can’t support having the city give the schools about $3 million a year in aid for unexpected special-education costs.
New Britain’s city government now receives that state money. City officials include it in the calculation of their annual school spending, but can’t afford to pass along the grant directly — and then make up another $3 million in school funding.
“I don’t think giving an additional $3 million is feasible now,” she said.
“Would I like to see additional money going to reducing class sizes? Of course. But we’re looking at a $12 million to $14 million cut in municipal aid under any of the state budget scenarios,” she said, adding that the city would have to make that up by cutting public safety, public works and other municipal expenses.
Gay called it “ridiculous” that the city government gets the aid and keeps it instead of passing it along to reimburse the school system for education expenses. He did not specify how he would generate additional revenue — or cut other expenses — to balance that loss to the city budget.
Gay said the best way for New Britain to close its student achievement gap is by putting more resources into early-childhood education. The city is plagued by low student reading scores compared to much of Connecticut, and he said it’s important to ensure that children are reading at the right grade level by early elementary school.
“If we can get things right from the beginning, we can start to address the achievement gap and the feeling that so many parents have — they’re worried the schools won’t give their kids the education they deserve,” he said.
Stewart suggested that the entire community work to spread word of the system’s health academy, finance academy and other specialized programs.
“Our school district has an incredible amount of opportunities for urban youth that are not available in other towns,” she said. “We decreased chronic absenteeism significantly, in-school suspensions are way down, math scores are up.”