Sen. Seminara Raises “questions that involve the state taxpayers’ money.”

June 13, 2024

CT’s comb through the Hartford schools’ finances is linked to its status as an Alliance District

By Steven Goode
Hearst CT

HARTFORD — Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez announced in March that her school district was looking at a $38 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year that would require cutting nearly 400 jobs in the schools and central office.

That announcement prompted an April meeting with Deputy Education Commissioner Charles Hewes and an invitation to Torres-Rodriguez to make a presentation to the state Board of Education’s accountability and support subcommittee on May 15 to outline the district’s situation.

As a result of that meeting, the state Board of Education and the Department of Education made the decision earlier this month to call for immediate assessment and audit of the district’s magnet school and special education programs, and its finances.

Torres-Rodriguez said in a statement following the announcement that her administration welcomed the assistance and appreciates the state’s partnership.

The state’s education board and department don’t step in often, but moves like this one are not without precedent. The two most recent occasions of significant actions came in 2011 when certain interventions were implemented, including the appointment of a special master, to oversee district reforms in Windham, and in 2016 when a special master was put in place to assist the New London Public Schools.

It has yet to been determined if a special master will be installed in Hartford’s case.

Officials from the school district and the state were scheduled to meet late Thursday.

But state officials said that what happened earlier this month was largely the result of Hartford being one of three dozen of the state’s lowest performing school districts, which results in heightened attention from and contact with the state Board of Education and Department of Education.

“The Alliance District program is a unique and targeted investment in Connecticut’s 36 lowest-performing districts,” said Matthew Cerrone, communications director for the state Department of Education. “Each Alliance District’s receipt of its designated ECS (education cost sharing) funding is conditioned upon the district’s submission and the Commissioner of Education’s approval of a plan; the district’s progress and performance relative to that plan; and the district’s subsequent annual amendments to its plan within the context of the district’s overall strategy to improve academic achievement.”

Cerrone said the Department of Education meets with Alliance Districts three times a year to analyze progress on each focus area and has developed a plan to support, monitor, and provide increasing structure and more rigorous intervention if local efforts are not effective over time. That support, he said, includes resource allocation and the utilization of funds in compliance with state statutes for the best results possible.

The state Board of Education’s role is to intervene and work with districts to provide students with better educational outcomes, Cerrone said.

While Torres-Rodriguez said she welcomed the help, some Republican legislators have questions about the department’s decision to intervene, including who will oversee the review and whether the state will take similar steps with other school districts.

“The decision raises questions that involve the state taxpayers’ money,” Sens. Stephen Harding, Eric Berthel, and Lisa Seminara said in a joint statement. “Will state Education Department employees now be embedded in the Hartford district office or at Hartford Public Schools? Who is making the decisions? Who decides what ‘necessary actions’ means? Did Hartford request this? Will these ‘necessary actions’ include a complete review of district contracts? If so, what is the scope — and the timeline — of that review?”

Cerrone said that he expects that there would be a conversation between Department of Education officials and legislators directly, but added that working with school districts to solve problems is not unusual.

“It’s what we do,” he said.