Story By John Murray
Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary visited the Bucks Hill Community Club last night and delivered what amounted to a state of the city address to 20 concerned citizens. The Mayor stood before community club members and uncorked a 90-minute speech that swept through all four quadrants of the city, and touched on major issues and projects in Waterbury.
Mayor O’Leary zeroed in on the imbalance of education funding as the #1 issue he will champion in the 2018 Legislative session in Hartford. O’Leary said the Waterbury school system continues to grow, while suburban student populations have shrunk by up to 25%.
“Waterbury’s student population is growing but state funding for our school system has not increased,” O’Leary said. “Suburban schools have had a sharp decrease in their student populations and their funding has remained the same.”
Mayor O’Leary stated that Waterbury is being underfunded by $40 million a year and that he has brought the issue to Governor Dan Malloy. Waterbury was part of a lawsuit that challenged the state formula for funding school districts. In September 2016 a Superior Court Judge ruled that Connecticut was defaulting on its constitutional duty to fairly educate its poorest children and ordered the state to come up with a new funding formula for public schools. After the initial victory, an appeals court judge recently overturned the verdict.
“After the latest verdict we’re back to square one,” O’Leary said. “School dollars will be the #1 legislative issue this year and we need everyone to contact their state legislator and urge them to prioritize this issue.”
Mayor O’Leary said the Waterbury school district now has 19,250 students and it continues to grow.
“Every year we gain more kids. They are coming from Latin America, they are coming from NYC, they are coming from all over the place,” O’Leary said. “Why are they coming? Because Waterbury is very safe compared to where they are coming from. Waterbury has low rent and the cost of houses is relatively low.”
Another factor leading new families and students to Waterbury, O’Leary said, is that Waterbury’s schools were better than schools in some other cities in Connecticut.
“Our schools are not great,” O’Leary said, “but they are not terrible.”
Mayor O’Leary also said 295 new children from Puerto Rico have enrolled since October and November. “These students were displaced by Hurricane Maria,” O’Leary said, “but the funding for our school system has not kept up with the growth of our population. We need to address this and seek a solution. I expect this issue to be a huge focus in Governor Malloy’s last year in office. ”
Mayor O’Leary is the president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), which according to their website is “the state’s largest, nonpartisan organization of municipal leaders, representing towns and cities of all sizes from all corners of the state, with 165 member municipalities.”
“This is the #1 issue on the agenda of CCM this year,” O’Leary said, “and we need everyone’s help.”