Education grants stay flat as school expenses grow

Educators expressed relief Wednesday at being spared major cuts in school funding in Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s recommended budget adjustments, but they said the forecast remains ominous, including more layoffs.

The key recommendation for schools was to hold the state’s Education Cost Sharing grant at its current level of just under $1.9 billion, avoiding some of the cuts that affected other areas of the state budget.

Education grants

Connecticut provided substantial increases in local aid for schools between 2005 and 2009, but a slumping economy and mounting deficits prompted Rell to hold the line on state school aid.

“It’s better than having it reduced, but costs are going up,” said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. “Nobody is going to start uncorking champagne bottles over this.”

The economic slump hit public schools hard last year with the loss of about 1,200 teaching jobs statewide, said Cirasuolo, who predicted more layoffs this year.

But Cirasuolo and others warned that the real crisis could happen next year, when federal stimulus money runs out. The state has been able to hold the line on municipal school aid because of an infusion of federal stimulus funds, accounting for about 14 percent of the grant. When the stimulus ends, it will leave a $265 million annual gap in the school aid budget.

“It could be chaos,” said Mark Waxenberg, director of government relations for the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. Rell is not seeking re-election this year, and “whoever the new governor is, has a major, major issue in front of him or her to come up with a funding model for public education that is sustainable,” Waxenberg said.

In Bloomfield, Superintendent of Schools David Title said the district anticipated there would be no increase in state school aid and expects to make some layoffs.

“I don’t know how many, but I think it’s unavoidable,” he said. “It’s not ideal, but in these times no cut [in school aid] is better than you might get in other times.”

In Windsor, school officials expect to reduce the number of teaching and administrative jobs, but “in all honesty, our greater concern is what happens after next year,” said Superintendent of Schools Elizabeth Feser. Of Windsor’s $11.5 million in state school aid, about $1.6 million comes from federal stimulus funds. “Losing $1.6 million would be devastating,” Feser said.

Public magnet schools and charter schools are slated to get increases in 2010-11 allowing for expansion of enrollments, but Rell recommended suspending special subsidies that had been approved for two magnets in Hamden and Meriden.

Rell’s proposed budget adjustments include reductions in some education-related line items, including a 10 percent cut in school busing aid for local districts. There are also proposed reductions in programs such as bilingual education and grants for interdistrict after-school and summer programs.

“The good news is the governor has not proposed cutting the major grants. . . . The bad news is there are all sorts of important things that get less attention that she has proposed cutting away,” said state Rep. Andrew M. Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee.

Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said, “A number of things got cut that we will be concerned about.” But he said that keeping state school aid at current levels “is a positive move in very difficult times.”

The proposal to hold municipal aid steady also drew praise from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “Overall, the governor’s budget proposal is good news for property taxpayers in difficult economic times,” Kevin Maloney, a spokesman for the conference, said in a written statement.

The state’s public colleges and universities would get only minor reductions in operating budgets under the governor’s recommendations, and there was no proposed reduction in financial aid to public college students.

Rell also proposed a student loan forgiveness program designed to keep college graduates working in Connecticut in specific fields such as life sciences, environmental technology and health related information technology.

Under that program, the state would forgive a portion of loans for graduates who work in selected jobs in the state for two to five years or more. The state would forgive as much as $2,500 a year with an overall maximum of $10,000 to graduates with bachelor’s degrees and $5,000 for graduates with associate degrees.