By Melissa Spear
I have spent my share of time at the Legislative Office Building (LOB) over the years advocating for a variety of causes – funding for open space and farmland preservation, transgender rights, and fair funding for education, among others.
I have been there often enough that I recognize many of the legislators walking the halls, as well as many of the lobbyists and advocates that frequent the building, which is a very odd feeling. For as long as I can remember, regardless of the year, and regardless of the cause, there was a clear sense that our State was in a “budget crisis.” Somehow, every year, the crisis seemed to be avoided. But it also seemed that everyone knew it was not averted – that eventually the piper was going to have to be paid.
All these years, I have been waiting for the State to reach that “tipping point” where something drastic had to be done to address our deficit. It certainly feels like that time is here, and the mood in the LOB seems to reflect that. During a recent meeting at the Capitol, we adjourned for lunch at the LOB, where the talk all around me focused on proposed cuts and the pain they would inflict. And there will be pain, I have no doubt. As I left the Capitol, everyone was waiting under a dark cloud for the Governor to release his revised budget, knowing it could only bring more bad news.
In the midst of all of this angst and uncertainty around the State’s budget, Common Ground has been in the process of preparing its budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. Thankfully we are not facing the same dire circumstances as the State, but the anxiety associated with the state budget certainly does leak into our budget process. After all, approximately 46% of our total budget is state funded, primarily as a result of charter school per-pupil funding and state after school program grants. The remainder of our funding comes through other competitive foundation or government grants, through individual donations (thank you to all the donors out there!), and through fee-based programming.
Depending on the day, as they negotiate a final budget in Hartford, I feel less or more optimistic about the impact that budget will have on Common Ground. A decrease in funding for Common Ground High School would be particularly painful, given that the school is already underfunded. This point was driven home by our school director, who coauthored a recent article calling the cuts reckless and irresponsible.
With the opening of the new building this month, CGHS has positioned itself to grow from 185 students to 225 over the next 3 years. In the long term this growth will contribute to our financial stability. In the short term this growth will require an investment of resources. This projected growth, in combination with the uncertainty in the State budget, on top of the already existing inequity in charter school funding, adds up to a great ball of anxiety as we finalize our 2016-2017 budget, and develop pro-forma budgets for the years beyond that.
Despite the current anxiety, I remain optimistic. Common Ground is doing impactful, high quality work. I can only hope that the value we create for our community continues to be recognized and rewarded. That being said, the Governor’s revised budget was released yesterday, and it has proposed cutting $2 million from current charter school funding. I have not yet done the analysis on how that might impact Common Ground High School but I can already feel the pain.
Fortunately, there is more advocacy and more negotiating to come. Unfortunately, we won’t know the final outcome of this process until May 4th, when the current legislative session ends, at the soonest. My fear is that the current round of cuts do not address the root causes of Connecticut’s budget problem. Until we take tax reform seriously, until we bite the bullet and seriously start to regionalize many more of our local services in order to benefit from economies of scale, I predict we will find ourselves continuing to cut, and continuing to inflict pain on those who are already suffering.
I am still wondering: when will we really reach the absolute, unavoidable tipping point, the one that will finally force us to take the steps necessary to address the structural issues that are actually at the root of our budget crisis? I am waiting and ready to get behind the transformation.