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CT superintendents worry about cuts as special COVID federal funding expires

Kelly Taylor helps her kindergarten students with their classwork at Breakthrough Magnet School in Hartford.
Kelly Taylor helps her kindergarten students with their classwork at Breakthrough Magnet School in Hartford.

A vast number of Connecticut superintendents are worrying about student mental health needs, the rising costs of special education and more as federal relief money expires and holes appear in education budgets across the state.

Sixty superintendents responded to an emailed survey from the School and State Finance Project in partnership with the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents earlier this year. The results, released Thursday, found that 95% of district leaders believe the loss of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief or ESSER funding “will have at least some impact on students in their district, with 76% saying students would be impacted moderately to a great deal.”

“Over 80% of district leaders surveyed believe the loss of ESSER funding will make it more difficult to address student learning needs, help students with greater learning needs (multilingual learners, students living in poverty), improve student performance and address student mental health needs,” the report said. “Tutoring/academic improvement programs, summer learning programs, and student mental health services are the most likely programs and services to be cut or eliminated when ESSER funding expires. Cuts are estimated to directly impact nearly 64,000 students.”

Federal relief funding was allocated over three periods, known as ESSER I, ESSER II and ESSER III, which totaled about $1.7 billion for Connecticut schools. Between ESSER I and ESSER III, funding increased tenfold, according to Education Elements, which added that federal funding was supposed to be spent on summer learning, technology, activities to address student needs, learning loss initiatives and evidence-based interventions especially for disadvantaged students.

Officials warned schools to heed spending on recurring costs and advised against using the funds for hiring or salary raises. But data shows several states across the country have spent millions on labor costs.

The Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, a research and policy organization, reported earlier this year that “in states that reported data, nearly 50% of ESSER III funds have gone to labor costs.”

Hires included math and reading specialists, counselors and administrative staff.

“Those newly hired staff are now at risk of being laid off if states don’t increase funding from other sources,” the CBPP reported. “Given that the education workforce has diversified dramatically in recent years, there is a risk that new staff of color will be more likely to be let go in school districts with layoffs, which typically target the newest hires.”

In Connecticut, a similar trend is expected to follow as “paraeducators, mental health professionals, and tutors are the positions most likely to be cut, eliminated, or left open when districts lose ESSER funding,” according to the report by the School and State Finance Project.

At least “an estimated 257 positions are expected to be cut, eliminated, or left open,” the report said. “Teachers are most likely to be impacted by cuts to professional development/training, cuts to support staff and teaching positions, and increased class sizes when ESSER funds expire.”

Earlier this month, The Hartford Courant reported that over 400 positions at Hartford Public Schools are expected to be cut amid a $77 million deficit for the upcoming school year.

“Some of these are currently vacant and others are funded by ESSER, so they were always considered to be temporary. Nonetheless, these reductions will have an impact on our schools and our district,” Hartford Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said.

The Courant added that of those 400 cut positions, over 150 would be general teaching positions, 158 administration, counseling, social work and non-special-needs paraeducator roles, and 34 “direct service positions including instructional coaches, school health providers, school psychologists and speech and language specialists will be cut.”

Hartford isn’t alone, as urban school districts and high-need students across the country have been expected to endure the brunt of the upcoming fiscal cliff.

Connecticut’s lowest-poverty districts have about 33% of their ESSER funds remaining, or about $177 per pupil, as its highest-poverty districts have left over 66% of its ESSER III funds, or about $4,000 per pupil unspent, according to Brookings, a nonprofit policy research organization.

Data last updated in late March shows school districts like Avon, Cromwell, Woodstock and Hebron have already spent over 90% of their total funds, as districts like Hartford, New London, Waterbury and Bridgeport range from 58% to 75%.

In the survey, Connecticut district leaders said their top three challenges were increasing student mental health needs, rising special education costs and the increase of student learning needs.

For superintendents of 14 of the state’s lowest performing districts, many said their top challenges were rising special education costs, chronic absenteeism and lack of funding.

Most responding superintendents said the loss of federal funding will make it more difficult to address student needs and improve performance and identified cuts to tutoring programs, summer learning programs and student mental health services, which could impact at least 29,000 students across the state.

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