Wearing #RedforEd and carrying signs that read, “Stand Up for Students” and “Fully Fund the Budget,” Stratford teachers, parents, and children rallied outside the town hall on Monday and spoke directly to elected officials inside, calling on them to reject a budget plan that falls millions of dollars short of the Board of Education’s proposed budget.
“We are already doing more with less, and our schools can’t absorb more cuts,” said Stratford Education Association (SEA) President Michael Fiorello. “Rejecting the Board of Education budget would result in even fewer resources, the elimination of programs for students, a potential school closure, larger class sizes, staff layoffs, and other cuts that jeopardize the future of Stratford’s children and public education.”
A tale of two budgets
Two critical factors are at play in Stratford’s education budget.
First, state law prohibits towns from budgeting less for education than they did the previous fiscal year. Second, legislators recently designated Stratford as an Alliance District, which brings with it additional state supports and funding.
In a surprising move, however, an amendment was slipped into the state budget that exempts Stratford from the minimum budget requirement. Town leaders now intend to use state Alliance District funds to supplant—not supplement—Stratford’s education budget.
“This amendment flies in the face of open, honest, and transparent government,” said Fiorello. “The law is meant to protect students and the public from exactly what’s happening here. We were placed on the Alliance District list because of performance indicators. Spending less is not going to make things better. We need to invest in students and schools in order to make things better. Our town officials must stand up to this injustice and do what’s right for our school system.”
“What town officials are planning to do is unconscionable,” added Stratford Education Association Secondary Vice President Kristen Record. “They are refusing to provide the needed funding for our students, and if that’s not enough, they also plan to take away local funds earmarked for students and education.”
Cuts hurt kids
“The Alliance District designation is a result of student needs that have to be addressed, and those needs qualify a school district for additional resources from the state,” CEA President Kate Dias told reporters. “So when a district identified as an Alliance District promptly turns around and cuts their budget, it defies logic.”
Cuts of this magnitude, she explained, have negative consequences for every student and make it nearly impossible to adequately support those who are English learners or have special needs.
Those are issues that several teachers spoke to directly at the rally.
“I’m here to give our families and students a voice,” said Franklin Elementary School first-grade teacher Randi Wallet. “We have a lot of students with special needs, and many who require English language learning support. Some of my colleagues are currently supporting 40 English language learners, or 60 English learners, and that includes children who have been here for a few years as well as those who have just arrived in the United States from Vietnam, West Africa, French Guiana, China, Poland, and other parts of Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America.”
Fellow Franklin Elementary educator Keri Paradis-Fengler, who teaches kindergarten, said, “Our students deserve the best. They deserve as much as kids in Darien and Westport and Greenwich, and they deserve to have the budget funded so that they can have access to programs, services, class sizes that are manageable, and teachers who can meet their needs.”
On the issue of class sizes, Eli Whitney Elementary School third-grade teacher Seri Pasmeg noted, “I have 25 eight-year-olds in my class, and having fewer teachers and larger class sizes is not how we’re going to improve our students’ performance.” Pasmeg, who grew up in Stratford and has taught for 25 years, said, “I’m here because we have to fund the budget. We used to have a motto—Kids First—and we really need to put kids first again.”
The rally’s youngest participant, eight-week-old Stratford resident Francesca, turned out with her mother, an eighth-grade English teacher at Flood Middle School.
“I live in Stratford, and I’m excited to send my daughter to our public schools,” said mom Amanda Green. “I’m here to support my students today as well as my daughter in the future.”
A community speaks out
In addition to teachers, among the many participants who spoke out at the Town Council Ordinance Committee meeting Monday night were parents and students.
Parent Liz Gramling expressed “fresh appreciation for our school staff after two years of hybrid learning, in-school learning, quarantines, illness, loss carried by our students, our families, our teachers and staff,” adding, “Those two years have left a mark. We see it nationally in the broadened achievement gaps and behavior challenges in our schools, and we see it in our students here, in Stratford. Without full funding from the town, Stratford schools will lose staff. Our staff is most valuable and most irreplaceable resource. If we are to close the achievement gap and improve our school environment, staff will be at the core of our success. We can’t do it without them. All of them.”
Fellow resident Patricia Craig, who graduated from Stratford’s Bunnell High School and whose family has a long, proud history of serving on the town’s police and fire departments, said, “It is very frustrating to see and hear the lack of priority given to Stratford schools. It goes against common sense and logic not to, at the very least, meet the contractual obligations of our Board of Education employees. What this means is that not only does this affect our teachers but our schools’ medical staff, secretaries, custodians, the transportation of our children to and from school, and essential education needs of students who need the most support. This town will be failing our children. Where is the justification for that?”
Craig mentioned that children who are especially vulnerable will suffer the most.
Speaking to that issue, and on behalf of LGBTQ youth such as herself, one student cautioned the committee that education cuts often have hidden—but profound—consequences.
“No one hears us until someone dies,” she said.
Jill D’Angelo, the parent of a kindergartner and preschooler, reminded the committee, “We just recently became an Alliance district, so we really need to put effort towards our education and our children. They’re going to be the future voters and future investors, and we really need to support them.”
Stratford resident Larry Haddad stood used his time at the podium to send a powerful message without uttering a word. For two full minutes, he stood in complete silence.
When he finally spoke, Haddad said, “This is what it will sound like if we close schools. This is what it will sound like if we lose teachers. If you’re a property owner, if you care about property values, if you care about the success of this town, this isn’t a partisan issue, so party shouldn’t decide whether or not we fully fund our schools. I think this is an easy one. We need a fully funded budget to have a successful education program in Stratford.”
In spite of the community’s pleas, the Ordinance Committee voted narrowly (5-4) to reject the Board of Education’s $125.7 million budget in favor of the mayor’s proposed budget of less than $123.2 million.
“There’s no way you can cut millions of dollars from a budget without cutting services to students,” CEA’s Dias emphasized. “The bottom line is that if Stratford moves forward with this, they’re going to have to decide what programs will be gone. This is when you start to see things like the arts get cut—things that are devastating to communities. Another startling undercurrent is that we are facing one of the most daunting teaching crises we’ve ever seen, and at the end of the day, if this district loses teachers, that’s a valuable resource they’re not going to be able to replace.”
She added, “A cut to any district has impacts far and wide, not just in that district but elsewhere in our state. Anytime there’s a cut of such significance, we rally our troops. We encourage educators to come out, speak up, wear #RedforEd, and share their messages to social media. Community awareness is super important. I don’t think this is what the community of Stratford wants; I think this is what some politicians have decided. The only recourse is for the community of Stratford to stand up and say, ‘We don’t want our children shortchanged. Our students have needs, we want those needs met, and we intend to stand up for them.’”
Board of Education Chair Andrea Corcoran has called the mayor’s budget proposal “gravely concerning,” noting, “Every staff member in each of our buildings is an important piece of our educational puzzle; losing even one of them—let alone many—could have real impacts on our students’ success.”
“Our students need more supports,” said Stratford Education Association Elementary Vice President Robin Julian. “We are three years into the pandemic, and our students have been dealing with trauma, mental health issues, and a host of other challenges that have taken a toll on them. We need a budget that addresses our students’ needs and will help them succeed and reach their goals.”
In a message to Stratford educators, Superintendent Dr. Uyi E. Osunde similarly expressed that the shortfall “draws concerns for many of us, given our district, school, and student needs.”
The full Town Council is scheduled to take up the budget at a meeting tomorrow at 5:30 p.m.