A group of 12 elementary and middle school children from Meriden and Hartford being bullied at school couldn’t make it past security at the front desk of the state Department of Education Thursday morning because there was no one to meet with them.
“There is no one available. No one? Really. You don’t have anyone to talk to these children,” Gwen Samuel, one of the parents who took the students to the department’s office in Hartford and founder of the Connecticut Parent Union. “Something is wrong with this picture. That building, that department, it’s not acceptable. It is almost built like a fortress. This is not how we are going to improve schools.”
Those children are hardly the only ones having trouble getting attention from the state education department these days. Staffing shortages have been cited repeatedly by the department when asked by legislators, oversight board, or advocates to address problems or provide assistance.
It’s a problem shared by other state agencies — or soon will be as budgetary forces place increasing strain on the state’s workforce.
Staffing shortages have already impacted services for foster children in the care of the Department of Children and Families, are being felt throughout the state Department of Transportation, and have resulted in larger class sizes at the University of Connecticut, among others.
But it’s clear the shortages have hit the education department particularly hard.
Estela López, who is the vice chair of the state Board of Education, has also struggled to get assistance from the department. Concerned that students who speak limited English are falling too far behind in schools across Connecticut, she wants the state to focus more on helping local school districts implement bilingual education programs.
It’s an approach research shows works, districts like New Haven want to expand – and, more specifically, something state law requires to be provided in districts with large numbers of English learners.
Lopéz hasn’t made much progress, however.
“There’s nobody at the education department able to oversee bilingual education,” she said recently. “If you want things to happen, you need to have enough staff for that.”
In October, advocates for students with disabilities were told by the state education commissioner that her department doesn’t have the capacity to release its investigations into allegations that school districts are mishandling special education services. Concerns have been mounting that these investigations aren’t thorough enough.
“We don’t at this point have the capacity in either our special ed unit or our legal services unit to do the simple work that would be necessary to do that. We are putting our capacity toward investigations,” said Commissioner Dianna Wentzell.
The education department has 56 fewer staff members today than it did four years ago – a 27 percent reduction in staff. A decade earlier, the department was twice the size it is today with its current 151 employees.
This means the department increasingly relies on parents, teachers and others to alert them when there are problems.
“If you know of incidences, we don’t know about them. There are about five people on our professional staff – it’s probably not even that many at this point – who are out in our schools. We need the reports. We will do everything we can to follow up on those reports,” Allan B. Taylor, longtime chairman of the state Board of Education, told the group of advocates for those with disabilities after they raised a host of issues in a handful of districts. “To hear this is happening in a lot of places – at least we are told – doesn’t do us [and] the kids you are talking about a whole lot of good.”
While the education department has been hit particularly hard by a retracted state workforce, reductions in state employee staffing levels have reverberated across state government.
At the Department of Children and Families, reductions in the number of social workers led to the federal court monitor regularly highlighting the significant problems that has created for children in foster care, such as lax monitoring and not being connected to services they need.
A policy group studying the Department of Transportation for Gov.-elect Ned Lamont reported this past week that the DOT badly needs an infusion of personnel.
The department has about 500 positions that are authorized to be filled — on paper — yet remain vacant, the panel said. These involve not only engineers, planners and others needed to help launch projects, but also snow plow drivers and others who are vital to maintaining public safety.
At the Department of Correction, staffing shortages put strain on the ability of its Health Department to monitorUConn Health’s delivery of health care to inmates.
And, at the University of Connecticut, faculty hiring has not kept pace with enrollment growth, resulting in larger class sizes or students facings delays to enroll in courses they need to graduate on time.
These reductions were made as the state faced historic fiscal challenges and lawmakers and the governor moved to reduce costs.
Over the past decade, legislators increasingly have mandated that the governor achieve enormous savings targets – sometimes approaching $1 billion per year.
But the mandate often provided few details on how the governor is to secure these savings, sparing legislators from publicly identifying specific programs to cut.
One of the chief tools Malloy used to fulfill these mandates was to slow the rate of hiring. And since most of the growth in the state budget has been driven by pension and other debt costs – largely fixed by contract – the governor has few options other than to slow hiring to meet these savings mandates.
In Lamont’s hands
Lamont is expected to face staffing challenges across state government in his first term.
The Associated Press first disclosed earlier this month that state agencies are projecting a dramatic surge in retirements in 2022.
Gov. Malloy’s Office of Policy and Management projects that as much as 40 percent of existing staff across the state could retire by that time. One of the worst potential surges can be found within the Connecticut state police force, where 401 out of 970 state troopers could be eligible to retire by 2023.
At the education department, 62 percent of staff are eligible to retire by that date.
The surge is driven in part by an aging state workforce. For example, the average age of a Department of Labor employee next month will be 52.
Another key factor behind this jump in retirements involves the concessions deal negotiated in 2017 by Malloy and state employee unions. The unions agreed to a series of new restrictions on health care and retirement benefits – some of which don’t take full effect until 2021 and 2022, which would incentive people to leave before that.
Lamont, who hasn’t weighed in on whether he intends to grow, maintain or shrink the current state workforce, will be hard pressed to maintain current staffing levels if he doesn’t want to raise taxes given the deficits facing the state.
He has said he wants to reduce labor costs through negotiations with state employee unions. But Lamont has tried to draw a distinction by saying he will seek “reforms” rather than concessions, preferring to find “win-win” efficiencies that reduce costs without harming benefits.
But would Lamont rule out seeking “reforms” that would curtail benefits? And would he pledge not to seek wage freezes like those granted by unions during negotiations with Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2009 and Malloy in 2011 and 2017?
“I don’t want to rule anything in or out,” Lamont told The Mirror during a campaign interview late last August.
His transition team’s recommendations
Lamont set up more than a dozen different panels with various stakeholders to help him with his transition by making recommendations for what they would like to see done during his tenure.
The panel he tasked with forming recommendations to improve education had no shortage of suggestions they would like to see implemented under his administration – more accountability for low-performing schools minimum district sizes, more timely data to monitor programs, an easier path for out-of-state teachers to work here, and better identifying students who need help paying for college.
But many of these proposals would require additional manpower at the education department, committee members said.
“We are talking about all these things that have to happen, but there aren’t the staff to make it happen,” said López, a member of the transition team.
Fran Rabinowitz, co-chair of the transition education panel and executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, offered a potential solution. She suggested the department have the existing six Regional Education Service Centers increase their support for districts. Those centers – RESCs – are largely funded by the state.
“I don’t expect that tomorrow that department is going to grow overnight, but I do believe that there are some opportunities for us to look at how that department is set up,” she said. “The CT State Department of Education is the smallest in New England. It’s even smaller than Rhode Island.”