Malloy hedges on school funding pledge

After pledging during the campaign that he would maintain state funding for local education, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy backed off a bit Thursday, saying that is “a goal” that he will “try to accommodate.”

“That’s a goal that I have in preparing a budget,” he said during his first press conference after taking office. “There are many goals that I have. We are going to try to accommodate all of them,”

On the campaign trail he was much more definitive.

“I’m also committed to not reducing the state’s commitment to support education,” Malloy told a gathering of 500 municipal leaders in October, adding that the impending loss of federal stimulus money funneled to schools “will be taken care of.”

“It will not be pushed on your back,” he said.

Lawmakers avoided decreasing state aid for local schools the last two years by using $541 million in federal stimulus money to plug a hole in the state’s main education grant, but those funds have run dry. If state lawmakers elect not to replace the federal money with state dollars, that translates to a 14.3 percent reduction in state funding for education.

“We’re not going to allow that 14 percent cut,” Malloy said in June when outlining his plans for education.

Malloy’s frustration with the previous administration for using one-time stimulus money to pay for education in the state has not changed over the months.

“Let me be very clear … relying on the federal [stimulus] money was folly,” Malloy said on Thursday.

Roy Occhiogrosso, a close advisor to Malloy, said after the press conference that Malloy’s message has changed slightly since the campaign, “but the goal remains the same” of making sure schools have the money they need to operate effectively.

“All options are on the table, and creative, smart ways of financing important programs certainly are under consideration. And so I would think an option for [funding education] is certainly something that will be considered,” he said.

In addition to the $1.9 billion the state will give towns for education this fiscal year, towns received another $900 million to cover other costs. Malloy said Thursday it is too early for him to announce whether that pot of money will need to be part of his “shared sacrifice” mantra.

Education officials paint a grim picture what a large cut would do to schools, starting with larger class sizes and followed by cuts to non-essentials like art class and after-school programs. Districts have shed 2,700 teaching jobs in the last two years already, education officials said at the state Capitol this week rallying to protect education funding.

Robert Rader, executive director Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, schools are already operating on a “bare bones” budget and there is no where left to cut without sacrificing the education being offered.

“We are about to go over a cliff,” Rader warned a room full of 75 education officials, students and reporters.

The legislature’s Education Committee co-chairman, Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, also said he supports filling the budget gap.

“Personally, I would rather see us increase funding,” he told the group.

But when asked how the state could afford to spend more on school aid in light of the $3.67 billion deficit, Fleischmann conceded that lawmakers have a lot of work to do to be able to fulfill that goal.

“I am hoping that we are able to put all those pieces together,” he said. “We have to get this right.”