When Bridgeport’s City Council approved this year’s $511.1 million city budget, it included a core school budget of $215.8 million. That is the same amount that was budgeted last year.
Last year’s school budget was balanced, in part, from a series of budget cuts proposed by Paul Vallas, Bridgeport’s $229,000, part-time, interim superintendent of schools, and approved by Bridgeport’s illegal board of education. The final gap was covered by a $3.5 million dollar forgivable loan from the State of Connecticut.
A budget is a type of a law. It is a blueprint of how the public’s money will be spent.
Although this year’s school budget is for the same amount as last year’s, some spending categories have been increased and others have been decreased.
To date, the focus has been on Vallas’ claim that he “cut” one-third of the school system’s “central office” costs, although considering he’s brought in a cadre of high-priced consultants, signed numerous no-bid contracts for new products and software systems, and pushed costs down to the school level, it is not clear whether he really has or has not cut out a third of the central operation.
But there is something that is very clear about the new budget;
Paul Vallas proposed, and the members of the illegal Board of Education adopted, a budget which includes an incredible, shocking and unprecedented attack on Bridgeport’s special education programs.
That cut was included in Mayor Bill Finch’s budget and approved by Bridgeport’s City Council.
Bridgeport’s new city budget eliminates 90 percent of the money needed to pay the tuition costs for the placement of special education students in what has been determined as the most appropriate environment for these children.
Last year, Bridgeport spent $39.8 million on costs associated with educating and supporting its special education students.
This year, Bridgeport’s approved school budget reduces that number to $18.9 million
That is a cut of $14 million dollars, and almost all of it comes from ending the placement of special education students who need services beyond what the school system can provide.
Vallas and the board cut the funds appropriated for out-of-district tuition and support services from $15.0 million to $1.4 million (see this year’s budget – link below).
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and other federal and Connecticut laws, students who face special challenges must be provided educational opportunities that maximize their potential and provide them with an education in the least restrictive, and most appropriate, environment.
As parents of students with special needs know, the school system develops an Individualized Education Program (called an IEP) that is designed to address each individual child’s needs. In some cases, that includes taking specific students out of a traditional school setting and enrolling them in special schools or programs.
The Vallas budget removes the money to send these children to the special schools and programs that they need and deserve.
In a truly stunning defense of his approach, Vallas wrote in a July 2012, District Financial update, “…the district has continued to find itself in precarious financial condition largely as a result of…burdensome contracts with external vendors which disproportionately allocated 10% of the entire budget to just 1.5% of our students, unfairly shortchanging the majority of our students and their teachers.”
Publicly pitting Bridgeport’s special education students against “the majority of our students and their teachers” is reprehensible.
Worse, instead of recommending a thoughtful effort to review and revise individualized education plans to see if less expensive options exist, Vallas simply ends tuition payments completely for these students.
And at the same time, the school budget reflects NO meaningful and corresponding increase in the number of special education teachers and professionals that would be needed if Bridgeport shifted all those special education students back into city’s traditional schools.
Not only is the plan Vallas has proposed and the illegal Board of Education adopted immoral, but, in speaking with special education experts, the move would almost certainly be ruled illegal. IEPs for every child would have needed to take place and be changed to achieve the budget savings; students would have had to have all been moved as of July 1, 2012.
Furthermore, the underlying problem with the budget that Vallas proposed and Mayor Finch signed, is that if Bridgeport’s special education students are not pulled out of their specialized programs, Bridgeport’s taxpayers are facing a $14 million deficit in their school budget.
An alternative scenario is that Team Vallas knew perfectly well that they couldn’t cut 90% of the special education funds for out-of-district placement, but wrote that “savings” into the budget in order to make it look like the budget was balanced.
Either situation is more than bad.
As noted, pitting special education students against the rest of the budget and proposing to remove students from their educational settings, a move that is probably illegal, is definitely not the answer to Bridgeport’s challenges.
But to knowingly adopt a budget that is $14 million out of balance is also bad news, especially for the taxpayers of Bridgeport who will have to pick up the costs associated with this type of fiscal irresponsibility.
If you run into anyone on Team Vallas, you might want to ask them, what are they doing to Bridgeport’s Special Education students?
If you run into a member of Bridgeport’s illegal Board of Education, you might want to ask them, why did they vote for a budget that is so off and so off track.
A copy of Bridgeport’s approved budget can be found here: http://www.bridgeportct.gov/OfficeofPolicyMgmt/Documents/2013%20Adopted/BOE%20all%202013.pdf
Vallas addresses the special education issue in his District Financial Update which can be found here: http://www.bridgeportedu.com/docs/HomePage/2012-2013/BPSDistrictFinancialUpdate.pdf