Organizing to save a Connecticut school

May 30, 2018

Nate Moore, a Connecticut teacher, reports on a local struggle to push back against spending cuts that would have devastated a public school.

GRISWOLD PUBLIC School teachers experienced a sigh of relief on May 15 when Connecticut legislators passed a biennial budget. Estimates by the Connecticut School Finance Project show that Griswold schools will receive full state funding for the next two years.

Last year, some 70 public school districts in the state had funding cuts of at least $1 million or more. In a bipartisan attack on school funding, Republican and Democratic legislators agreed to cut $500,000 from school funding to Griswold Public Schools.

Then, Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy took advantage of a clause in the budget process empowering him to unilaterally authorize the withholding — known as “holdbacks” — of state money from public schools in order to balance the budget. The “holdbacks” amounted to another $800,000 cut for our school district, bringing the total austerity bill to $1.3 million.

Griswold teachers write letters to state legislators demanding urgent funding for public schools
Griswold teachers write letters to state legislators demanding urgent funding for public schools (Connecticut Education Association | Facebook)

At the beginning of 2018, Connecticut schools were faced with the governor’s proposal to continue funding public schools to the level they were reduced to for the current school year. This would amount to a compounding cut of more than $1 million from year to year, a devastating prospect for our school.

FACED WITH this, educators in the Griswold School District decided to come together and organize. They formed a group called “Save CT Public Schools” and created a Facebook group as a way to reach educators and community members within the school district, as well as outside of it. The group collaborated with the local union, the Griswold Education Association (GEA), an affiliate of the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), and the National Education Association (NEA).

Early on, teachers expressed the desire to organize public actions on a statewide level, and some cited the struggles happening in West Virginia as an example to emulate. However, there was very little movement on the ground for statewide actions.

This was partly related to the fact that cuts to state funding affected schools differently. For example, Malloy’s cuts did not drastically cut funding from city schools. Also, some of the cuts did take funding away from the wealthier school districts, which can make up for any shortfalls in state funding with local municipal taxes.

The schools that were adversely affected by the cuts were often in non-wealthy rural areas of Connecticut that can draw only limited funds from their municipal tax bases.

Another factor inhibiting a larger movement was the fact that the CEA didn't have a strategy beyond letter writing and lobbying at the capital. The current infrastructure of the union isn’t based on networks of teachers within schools, but solely on union representatives within schools, whose activity is focused on day-to-day union business.

Teachers in “Save CT Public Schools” wanted to do outreach to other schools, but we and the union had little infrastructure for doing so. Another limitation we were facing involved time: The state legislature would be finished deliberating on next year’s budget by the first week of May. Given these limitations, we decided to organize a meeting at our school with local legislators in order to express our disgust and concern with the state funding cuts.

On April 11, approximately 35 educators, administrators and community members attended a meeting with state Sen. Heather Somers and Rep. Kevin Skulcyzck, both Republicans.

While both said that they understood that Griswold Schools were hit particularly hard and that they supported as “much restoration of funding as possible,” their message to teachers and the Griswold community employed racist and pro-austerity arguments to defend cutting education funding.

Somers and Skulcyzck predictably postured as the opposition to a Democratic governor, but they were only in a position to do so because Malloy has been awful for teachers. In addition to instituting the funding holdbacks, Malloy has argued that the costs of teachers’ retirements should be passed onto towns, resulting in a big hit to local school budgets.

Somers also argued that the “Black and Latino caucus” was responsible for obstructing changes in funding statewide, leaving less money for surrounding districts. This is a racist argument designed to pit rural schools, which are predominately white, against urban schools with large minority populations.

Urban schools are facing incredible challenges and rising needs due to the incredible economic inequality in our state. These schools did not “take” funding from other districts. The state did.

Along with this racist argument, Somers and Skulcyzck claimed that state budget crisis can’t be solved through increased taxation of Connecticut’s wealthiest residents — a state with one of the highest number of millionaires per capita.

ALTHOUGH GRISWOLD educators were successful in restoring some $1.4 million for the next two school years, our school will still have to pay for the $1.3 million in state budget cuts this year because the school district does not have a tax base that can afford to offset cuts in state funding. So the school will still experience reductions to infrastructure, supplies, upgrades, teachers and programming.

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In the end, Malloy’s cuts amount to one large regressive tax on certain towns, which will be paid for through diminished opportunities for our students.

Through “Save CT Public Schools” and the GEA, Griswold educators have taken the first step in pushing for the interests of public schools and students.

Teachers here are aware that movement of educators in “red” states has had an important impact on the modest steps we have taken in a “blue” state. We need to continue to remain vigilant in the months and years to come and build opposition at a grassroots level to these cuts within our unions and workplaces.

Further Reading

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