Slicing a smaller pie: Educators consider how to share reduced funding

Governor-elect Dan Malloy may have promised not to cut state aid for schools, but state education leaders aren’t taking that for granted: They’re scrambling to form a plan for dealing with a major loss of funding.

For the current school year, state lawmakers capped school aid at $1.9 billion, but $270 million of that was paid for with one-time federal stimulus money. Education leaders are not confident the state will be able to afford to fill that $270 million gap, which amounts to 14 percent of state aid for schools, in the face of a $3.3 billion deficit.

So a panel of education leaders — including teachers unions, the superintendents association, the state board of education members and Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan — are weighing the options.

Should funding for school districts be cut across the board? Should poor communities be spared? Should districts with more English language learners or special education students not be cut as much?

Those are among the issues the panel will weigh and offer recommendations on to Malloy and state lawmakers as early as December.

The panel’s final recommendation will likely be a starting point for state lawmakers, who will have to decide how much state aid will be given and how it will be distributed.

“We have a long journey here,” said McQuillan. “For every change we make, there will be a tradeoff.”

Joseph Cirasuolo, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, agreed.

“If someone’s making money, then another district is losing money, and that’s a problem,” Cirasuolo told the education panel Monday.

Alex Johnston, head of the New Haven-based school reform group ConnCAN, said renewing the current funding structure and having across-the-board cuts is not the right answer.

“Politically, of course the easiest thing to do is to just give everyone a haircut,” he said. “The formula should not be about what [a district] brings back from the state Capitol. It’s, ‘Are we funding our students fairly based on their needs?”’

Brian Mahoney, the budget director for the State Department of Education, presented the panel a laundry list of options and how the changes would impact different school districts.

For example, basing funding only on a district’s wealth and special education needs would result in 38 of the richest communities receiving nothing from the state.

“This really would be a way to drive money to these urban districts,” said John Yrchik, the executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, but stripping any district of funding may not be a good idea. “This is a fundamental question that I think we are going to have to answer.”

The panel meets again in December, and at that time hopes to adopt recommendations for what the state funding formula should look like. The next step is convincing Malloy and state legislators to agree.

“If we can get it in the governor’s budget then that’s a good first step for it becoming a reality,” Mahoney said.