Will towns get stuck with the school reform bill?

Governor Rell has signed the highly touted ‘school reform’ bill, a bill that passed both chambers of the General Assembly overwhelmingly, garnering 31 votes in the Senate and 106 in the House. The Mirror describes the bill as the product of an “unlikely coalition” and the Governor’s press statement says “all of the interested parties – educators, unions, parents, students, legislators and others – [were] together at the table”.

Nobody questions the need for school reform – the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities has been in the forefront calling for an increased state role in closing the “achievement gap.” But one group was not invited to the table when it was being discussed: Chief elected municipal officials – those with the ultimate responsibility for paying for any new unfunded state mandate – were left out of the discussion.

The siren call of $195 million over four years in new, temporary federal funds for new programs is alluring, but let’s look at the abysmal job the state is doing in meeting its existing education finance responsibilities.

In each year of the current biennium, Connecticut’s Education Cost Sharing program was kept level-funded to FY 08-09 only by use of $271 million in federal budget stabilization funds — money that will likely be gone in FY 11-12. Further, the reform legislation imposes new costs estimated to be between $21 and $28 million. Adding together the loss of ECS funds and the new costs, and subtracting the Race To The Top grants, it is possible that by the time the new law takes effect, property taxpayers could be hit with almost $250 million per year in new education costs.

The state’s history of fulfilling financial commitments to towns and cities is sketchy at best. The state’s share of K-12 public education costs next year will be 32.7%, the lowest in over a quarter-century. For example, special education “excess cost” grants were funded at $120 million, but applications for reimbursements will be about $145 million – so municipalities and property taxpayers will be forced to eat the $25 million difference. Altogether, towns and cities have suffered cuts in state aid in this biennium of over $100 million.

On top of that, the state’s ability to fulfill its commitment is questionable – it faces a structural deficit of about $3.5 billion for FY 11-12. Is it any wonder local officials wonder whether sufficient state funding will be forthcoming and, if not, who will pay for the reform bill’s new costs?

Few dispute the potential benefits from the school reform legislation. It’s no fun being the wet blanket who has to talk about its price tag. But today’s school closings, teacher layoffs and program cuts are just the beginning. Is the state going to be willing to “increase” ECS funding by $271 million in FY 11-12 to keep it “level-funded” to FY 08-09 and appropriate additional funding for unreimbursed school-reform mandates on local school districts?

It’s an old story in Connecticut – the state buys into new programs with high-sounding rhetoric and then refuses to fund them, forcing municipalities and property taxpayers to pick up the tab.

Let’s not let that happen – again. Improving school performance is important to Connecticut’s future. CCM urges every citizen – local officials, homeowners and business leaders – to press state candidates for a commitment to adequately fund K-12 public education, including newly mandated costs for school reform.

James J. Finley Jr. is executive director & CEO of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. CCM is the statewide association of towns and cities.

Comments

comments