Today, my first-grade son said goodbye to his kindergarten “class Grandma.” After cuts to the program, today was her last day. This was a federal program, but as we cut kindergarten paraprofessionals in 2016, these women were our last line of defense. According to the Connecticut School Finance Project, under Gov. Dannel Malloy’s executive order, Bridgeport will receive $5.6 million less in state funds than last year. Under the Republican budget, passed by the legislature but vetoed by the governor, that number would’ve been $7 million.
While we do not know whether we’ll even get a state budget this year, one thing is certain. There will be more cuts to our schools. Some will come from direct state shortfalls, others from city underfunding.
Mayor Joseph Ganim knew the state shortfall was coming, City Council knew it was coming. And citizen groups like Bridgeport Generation Now and Faith Acts for Education knew it was coming. The tragedy here is that Mayor Ganim and our City Council made a conscious choice: do nothing. They chose to let the schools suffer and then direct all of the blame to the state. They shield themselves from their public responsibility with the bodies and minds of Bridgeport children.
This is a story of poor process and weak leadership in city government. Our leaders not only failed to plan for the inevitable, but they are unwilling to do the hard work of governing effectively and honestly. They are unwilling to engage the public early and often, educating us and calling us in to be part of the solution. Now, we are forced to be reactive. Reactive decision-making leads to inadequate solutions, public outcries, misunderstandings, civil unrest, community divisions, pain, and suffering.
Many argue that the state budget unfairly underfunds Bridgeport schools. They are right. Anyone who thinks otherwise need only read the 2016 CCJEF vs. Rell ruling, which determined that how Connecticut funds our schools is irrational and unconstitutional. Many also argue that it is not the Mayor or City Council’s fault that the state hasn’t passed a budget. What could they do? It is the answer to that question that shows complete disregard for their responsibility to our children.
Doing nothing was a decision. The evidence of how conscious and purposeful this decision was comes from several sources.
First, Bridgeport Generation Now identified early on that the city budget was set up to shortchange education, in the highly likely event of a state shortfall. BPTGN publically stated this concern in multiple forums in the spring of 2017. Email exchanges with various city officials urged them to act immediately to identify a plan that protects education. Return emails ensured that this would be done “when there is clarity from the state.” BPTGN pointed out that it would be too late.
At the May 8 budget meeting, City Council did shift $1 million from police overtime into education. On May 18, however, Mayor Ganim vetoed this change and the money went back into the police department’s budget, whose union was publicly in support of his mayoral campaign. Scott Burns, co-chair of the Budget Appropriations Committee, is quoted in response as saying, “I don’t think we’re trying to mess around a lot with the budget at this point with so much uncertainty.”
Huh? If the primary breadwinner in your house is likely to be laid off in the next six months, that is exactly when you start messing around with your budget. You start making plans and shifting money to protect those things that are most important.
Second, on July 25, Mayor Ganim released a You Tube video on the budget, in which he blames the state for city woes. He states “you’re not gonna cut police, you’re not gonna cut fire, you’re not gonna cut education, and unless you lay off your workforce, you’re not gonna cut employees.” We can infer from this statement that the well-being of our children is no more important than other government functions and services. We can also infer that his arguably ineffective political strategy is to be the loudest lobbying for state aid, during a political and fiscal crisis in which 168 other municipalities are also crying foul. But it is what he doesn’t say that’s crucial: the state shortfall is earmarked for education, not for those other departments. When the state dollars don’t come in, we will cut education unless we act. And act he did not.
So, here we are in October and it is too late. City funds for education are depleted. During a time period when the administration should’ve been working collaboratively with Bridgeport Public Schools, the Board of Education, and City Council on a vision and plan for our schools, instead we’re subjected to a private theatre development plan with no public input, a private casino development plan that is currently illegal under CT law with no public input, and to article after article on analyzing his run for governor.
Good leadership is the hard work of solving an acute crisis for the children of Bridgeport. We needed a strategic plan by Sept. 30, when block grants for education are released by the state. The mayor’s administration rejected an opportunity to establish a Financial Task Force that could’ve performed a thorough review of all department budgets to identify inefficiencies and prioritize education. Holding town halls and open dialogue with the public, non-existent in this administration, could’ve better aligned our city budget with our citizen’s values. Even when public input is clear, it is ignored: during this year’s budget negotiations, public speakers were overwhelmingly in support of more dollars for education over other departments.
Should Bridgeport citizens be angry with the state of the Connecticut budget and its consequences for Bridgeport? Absolutely. But what’s becoming clear is that the mayor is willing to use that anger to his political advantage and if our kids have to suffer for that, so be it.
Niels Heilmann lives in Bridgeport and is treasurer of the Bridgeport Generation Now!