Lawmakers pledge to preserve school funding

Despite a warning this week that the loss of federal stimulus money could blow a gaping hole in school budgets across Connecticut, leading lawmakers say the legislature is prepared to fill that gap.

The state has relied on federal stimulus money to prop up state school aid to municipalities, but projections by the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis indicate that legislators intend to keep that aid at existing levels even after stimulus funds dry up.

“It was never our intention to reduce funding to towns because federal money runs out,” said state Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee. “Our commitment to that is clear.”

harp, toni

Sen. Toni Harp: ‘Our commitment is clear’

Earlier this week, state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan made a plea for a renewal of federal stimulus funds to avert the loss of thousands of teaching jobs.

Connecticut has received about $785 million so far in federal stimulus money for schools, but that money is scheduled to dry up in 2011, potentially resulting in massive layoffs for the 2011-12 school year, McQuillan warned.

“Without action by Congress to continue its support of our schools, we face dire consequences at the local level,” McQuillan said in a letter to members of the state’s Congressional delegation.

The state’s Education Cost Sharing grant – by far the largest grant to municipalities – is just under $1.9 billion, but the state has been able to hold that figure steady because of an infusion of federal stimulus funds. The stimulus accounts for about 14 percent of the grant, or roughly $270 million.

If that dries up, making it up will be difficult, especially against the backdrop of the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis.

“It’s a pretty big hole to fill,” Harp said. Nevertheless, she said, “We’re not going to back away from that commitment.”

State Sen. Thomas Gaffey, the co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee, agreed. “It’s critical,” said Gaffey, D-Meriden. “To not do that would be disastrous for every municipality in Connecticut. . . . We all know we’ll be grappling with a huge budget challenge again, but we cannot responsibly respond to that by just laying it off on cities and towns.”

However, even if the legislature keeps school aid at current levels, educators expect to see continuing strains on local budgets, including further layoffs, as costs continue to rise.

In his letter to Connecticut’s Congressional delegation, McQuillan urged support for pending legislation that would provide additional stimulus funding aimed specifically at preserving teachers’ jobs.

That money would be welcome, said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee.

“I agree with the commissioner that the federal delegation should be seeking these stimulus dollars,” Fleischmann said. “My personal goal would be first get the federal stimulus dollars, and, if we don’t, that the state step up to the plate.”