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Are Urban And Suburban School Districts Working Together For Hurricane Evacuees?

Aug 26, 2018

Last fall, 2,281 new students poured into Connecticut from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Sixty-five percent of them went to five of the state's largest cities -- the ones that were already dealing with fiscal crises.

In a move intended to help those cash-strapped districts, the legislature passed a law that allows boards of education in Connecticut to reach out to districts in surrounding towns and enter into a memorandum of understanding with each other. 

While Bridgeport Public Schools accepted 211 evacuees from the islands, Fairfield Public Schools, right next door, had only one student enroll.

“We did have one child from the Virgin Islands, stayed with us a very short time that enrolled, but we have not had any requests for assistance from other districts,” said Toni Jones, superintendent of Fairfield Public Schools.

Even though the law is supposed to open lines of communication between districts, it’s actually putting a spotlight on why those conversations aren’t happening.

Fairfield, like many other suburban districts, never fielded a call for help from the urban cities that took on most of the children that came to Connecticut from the Caribbean.

“Some districts saw more. Some districts saw less,” Jones said. “We didn’t see any and that is not what I anticipated. We were prepared. Our psychologists, counselors, and social workers were prepared for some crisis intervention and those resources weren’t needed.”

In West Hartford, schools welcomed 14 evacuee students. That town is sandwiched between Hartford and New Britain. Between them, those cities took on more than 700 evacuees.  But like Fairfield, no one ever called out to West Hartford Public Schools or its assistant superintendent for administration Dr. Andy Morrow.

“Certainly we’d be open to that conversation,” Morrow said. “But, I think from our standpoint, in the students that we have taken in, these are our kids whether they start the year with us, whether they end the year with us.”

Hartford Public Schools is in the midst of five years of flat-funding from the state because of the city’s fiscal challenges. Taking on over 450 new students in the middle of the school year did not help the district’s financial woes. Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, Hartford’s superintendent, said it actually compounded its budget gap—by $3.1 million.

“We had a $24 million gap,” said Torres-Rodriguez. “So, if you think about the $24 million, we would have been at a $21 million deficit instead of a $24 million deficit.”

Despite all of the money problems, it doesn’t appear that Hartford attempted to send kids out of town.

“OK, so we send 25 students to our neighbors in West Hartford,” Torres-Rodriguez said hypothetically. “Well, they have to also program for our students. They also have to make sure that they have the certified staff--the social workers that are necessary to meet the needs of our students.”

The Consolidated School District of New Britain already had about 10,000 students going to school there and then 269 evacuees enrolled after the storm. Superintendent Nancy Serra characterized the challenge of providing an education to all of those students and making room for new ones as “slicing the bread thinner than it was already sliced.”

New Britain to this point has indicated the most interest out of all Connecticut towns in reaching out to other districts. But Serra never officially made the call. It all goes back to advice she got on the subject during a meeting with Connecticut’s Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security’s New Britain coordinator.

“When I had said something like that, someone said ‘Well, why would you really want them to go to another town when their family goes to this in town and I said ‘I understand’,” Serra said. “[I] almost felt guilty for saying ‘Can someone else take the kids?’ and [I’m] like ‘No, we’ll [keep them here].”

Serra said any kind of cooperative effort between districts may have to wait for statewide action. And action that goes deeper than a single law that allows for districts to enter into a memorandum of understanding.

“It goes back to the deeper issue of local municipalities being totally responsible for the students in there and that over time, I think we need to look at that regionalizing idea—pooling resources in a different way,” Serra said.

West Hartford’s Andy Morrow looked at this law differently. He said it might benefit regional school districts the most--ones that might not be equipped to properly educate bilingual students.

“If you’re sharing services between districts, it may make more sense in certain areas to try to consolidate students in one area to receive those services,” Morrow said.

In fact, before the legislature passed the law, there were already mechanisms allowing school districts to share resources. The Shared Services Agreement was enacted in 2010. So, when the state Senate voted 36-0 and passed the law, its critics could argue it was making a ceremonial point--but not one that seems to have resulted in real action.

This post has been edited to clarify the legislature's role.