Options On The Table For The "Move To Neighborhood Schools"

New Britain’s “Move to Neighborhood Schools” will be the focus of  a Monday, February 25th Board of Education meeting when board members will review a plan by Supt, Kelt Cooper that calls for all students attending classes in schools and programs outside of their neighborhood district in 2012-2013 to attend a neighborhood school in 2013-2014.

The Monday 2/25 public meeting begins at 6 p.m. at New Britain High School’s Tercyak Lecture Hall on Mill Street with a presentation on the neighborhood plan and two hours set aside for public comment. According to BOE President Sharon Beloin-Saavedra a final plan for a neighborhood schools’ strategy will be voted on by the board in March.

The BOE faces a lengthy agenda because of storm cancellations earlier in the month. It will also take up inclusion of the DiLoreto School in the State Commissioner of Education’s “network” schools — a decision expected to bring additional funds into Slater Road school to improve the school district’s low achievement scores.

Over the last decade or so the school district established specialized programs or magnets with learning communities and supports as choices for families (available via lottery) across the city with the intent of developing models for higher student achievement. The neighborhood school proposal notes that “while most students attending these select programs attained high levels of academic achievement, the strategy did not increase overall school district performance.”  The administration said the citywide academies “created another  unintended issue: that of filling schools with non-neighborhood children. This necessitated the busing of neighborhood students to other buildings to accommodate any incoming population.”

Cooper is proposing that 2013-2014 be a year of transition with four steps: 1)Students newly registered to the district are placed in his/her neighborhood school based on classroom space; 2) the elimination of Out of District (OOD) or “non-neighborhood school” requests by parents or guardians; 3) the re-zoning of school district lines based on population; 4) adoption of neighborhood schools for all students in the 2013-2014 school year identified as “Plan A.” by the school administration.

BOE members are reviewing Cooper’s proposal that also identifies two alternate plans for moving to a neighborhood school strategy.

“Plan B” allows students located in a school outside of their district to be “grandfathered” into the school outside of the neighborhood district with certain conditions. The student would first be placed in a neighborhood school in September 2013 for the first three weeks and then, — if space is available — the student could  return to the OOD school of choice for the remainder of the year.  Parent or guardians, however, would be required to provide transportation since busing to non-neighborhood schools will be eliminated. “Plan C” allows for “grandfathering” of students in the non-neighborhood schools of choice in 2013-2014 in grades 5 and 8 only.

Supt. Cooper prefers Plan A stating that it “would be the most efficient means to return to neighborhood schools. It is one which would probably be the most cost effective regarding the budget.”

For implementation to neighborhood only schools (special education is exempt from the plan) the school administration will need to re-draw the city’s education map with new district lines. “The ground work has begun in the mapping identification of students at schools for the current year. This process clearly shows that students in each school are scattered throughout the city, which requires busing to all schools,” Cooper stated in a February 7th proposal. “The second process involves the mapping of former neighborhood school district lines from the mid 1990s with the overlay of our current student population to identify the numbers of students at each school based on the former neighborhood lines. In some cases the population has shifted away from a few neighborhoods and significantly increased in other neighborhoods.”

The neighborhood schools’ plan seeks to “establish the framework for equitable distribution of district resources based on the needs of the neighborhood school.”   School administrators acknowledge  “the movement of district lines is a significant event in our community but it is essential to regain a sense of school community in neighborhoods.”

To counteract parent concerns about the loss of learning communities (LCs) that have improved student performance in the academies, school officials are pledging that “the best practices we have learned to be effective through out smaller learning communities will be implemented district-wide for all students in all schools.”

The neighborhood school proposal identifies a potential saving of $78,200 for each bus taken out of service in 2013-2014.  Those funds presumably could be applied to school budgets on a neighborhood basis,  but the total amount of savings from transportation for the district was not estimated.

Digging Out Slowed By Storm Intensity, Accumulation

The storm that moved into the city at mid day on Friday dumped upwards of 27 inches of drifting snow. It will likely take two to three days to get streets back to normal in cities such as New Britain and Hartford.

By 9 p.m. Saturday many residential side streets remained unplowed as crews labored to get major thoroughfares cleared for emergencies and public safety responses.

The intensity of the storm and Friday night blizzard conditions forced crews off the roads disrupting a normal schedule of snow clearance that occurs with less severe storms.  Public and private crews have been working all day Saturday and will continue through the night to make all streets passable by some time Sunday, officials said.

“You can’t even quantify how bad it is out here,” said one private plow operator about the situation in New Britain. “Take the 2011 storms and triple it. I’ve been stuck in the truck 10 times. There are places I can’t even do with the truck. There is just too much to plow.”

In an update Mayor O’Brien said that all streets should be clear by Sunday:

“In New Britain, city crews have been working around the clock, under difficult conditions, since during the storm, to clear the snow. As of right now, it looks like city streets will be opened by snowplows sometime tomorrow (Sunday).
With the massive amount of snow, the clearing has been tough and slow-going. To get the city up and running, the city has been clearing the major roads first and working to the neighborhood streets.
The job is so large because of the historic snowfall that the city workers actually have to use pay loaders in addition to plows to clear the large amount of snow. And because there is so much snow to be removed, it is going to take time to completely clear the streets. It is a tough job, given how severe this storm was, and other cities and towns are experiencing similar challenges.”

A pristine Brighton Street near CCSU in the Belvedere neighborhood was among many secondary roads that were still waiting for street plows late Saturday night.  Friday’s blizzard forced crews off the roads for a time during the storm. 

Lower Values Will Mean Fewer Assessment Appeals, Lower Taxes (But Not For the Right Reasons)

The Board of Assessment Appeal will be hearing from hundreds of property owners in a couple of months who disagree with the just completed, state mandated revaluation on residential and commercial real estate in the city.  

But for City Assessor Mike Konik and his three-member board the number of appeals should be dramatically less than other reassessment years. The caseload load may be at an all-time low.

The Herald’s Scott Whipple reports: “The city’s Grand List for Oct. 1, 2012, decreased $498,847,668, or 16.92 percent, from the 2011 list to $2,450,232,418. Revaluation, mandated by state law at least every five years, was the reason for the drop-off as housing values have been adjusted downward reflecting the bottoming out of the market that had reached a peak in 2007 when the city last reassessed property.”

Homeowners and apartment house owners will be getting a break as the mill rate is set for another year. Tax rates are going down not because governments are ending the over reliance on property levies. They are declining because of the  economic collapse of five years ago.   Long term, the fiscal squeeze on cash-strapped cities such as New Britain is getting worse..

It used to be a given that your home would  always go up in value in good economic times and bad. Home equity was that economic ace in the hole for American households. It could leverage loans to pay for college or help reduce debt. The seller, with rare exceptions, could always count on a return on investment, getting  significantly more than the original sales price.  The only downside was that whenever revaluation occurred homeowners would always get whacked with a bigger tax bill. And in Connecticut ,with some of the highest property taxes in the country, that meant lots of appeals and more pressure to shrink municipal budgets.
“The banks had issued so many mortgages, so rapidly, that they had given short shrift to basic procedural safeguards,” says Economist Joseph Stiglitz in his book, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. “And as the banks and other lenders rushed to lend more and more money, not surprisingly, fraudulent practices became endemic. FBI investigations spiked. The combination of frequent fraudulent practices and a disregard of procedural safeguards was lethal.”

And so bad things happened to many working and middle income people when the unregulated “too big to fail” banks and investment houses consorted to bring down the economy.  The bailed out bankers foreclosed quickly on the little guys, including those duped into homeownership via lenders who stretched and broke the rules..

Locally,  lower assessments will further  reduce municipal income as communities seek revenue to keep school funding and essential services afloat.   Few thought the ever expanding housing market would go bust until the “bubble” burst and the economy tanked in 2008. 

As reported in the New York Times in a story on the plight of municipal budgets in 2011:

And because it often takes several years for property tax assessments to catch up with the state of the housing market, the real impact of the housing implosion is only now being felt in many cities. For the first time since the Great Recession began, property tax collections fell during the last three months of 2010, according to an analysis of data by the Rockefeller Institute, and many mayors expect the declines to continue.

A July 2012 report from the Rockefeller Institute, State University of New York, “The Impact of the Great Recession On Local Property Taxes,”  puts the new property assessments and the financial struggles of cities  into perspective:

  • The property tax is, by far, the most significant revenue source used to finance critical local services such as K-12 education, police and fire protection, and other front-line public services.
  • Although the property tax is generally a stable revenue source, the Great Recession, the housing bubble, and tax limits have combined to weaken tax collections significantly.
  • Local property tax revenues declined by 0.9 percent in nominal terms in the first quarter of 2012, after two consecutive quarters of growth. However, after adjusting for inflation, local property taxes actually declined by 2.8 percent in the first quarter of 2012, marking the sixth consecutive quarterly decline in real collections.
  • Prolonged weakness in the property tax, combined with continued budget stress at the state level and the prospect of deep spending cuts in Washington, raise the prospect of serious budget problems and service cutbacks in local governments in many parts of the country.
Everyone on all sides of New Britain’s budget and tax debate needs to consider the big picture before pointing fingers and blaming the Mayor, the Council and their neighbors.