Malloy offers towns hope of school funding flexibility

Days after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promised to maintain state funding of local schools at current levels, the governor offered municipalities another glimmer of fiscal hope: the possibility of cutting their own education spending if student populations decline.

But the Democratic leader of the state House, touring the Roger Sherman Elementary School in Meriden with Malloy, said he sees little chance the legislature will change state law to allow communities to reduce funding.

“Education is a big priority for us,” said House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden. “I know towns have some concerns but I don’t think there’s much support for that at all.”

Current spending for public education statewide is about $10.4 billion this year, with municipal property taxes paying 55 percent of the bill, the state 38 percent and federal government 7 percent from mostly one-time stimulus funds.

Earlier this week, Malloy reiterated a pledge he made during the gubernatorial election campaign to maintain school funding at current levels, including the $543 million coming from federal funds that won’t be available this year.

malloy offers towns hope of school funding flexibility

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy sits in as teaching assistant Nancy Murray reads Tacky the Penguin to first grade students

Municipalities received that news with relief, but they’re looking for more: the ability to cut their own education spending. During the tour at Roger Sherman, Malloy was asked if he would support that request. Though he said he generally supports what’s known as the Minimum Budget Requirement, he opened the door to a possible exception.

“The only circumstances under which there should be any waiver of that would be a sizeable reduction of the student body,” he said. “But if that’s happening then there should be a corresponding reduction in the [state] support as well.”

The state already takes student enrollment into account when allocating education aid to cities and towns, but municipalities aren’t allowed to do the same. State law requires them to budget at least as much for education each year as they did the year before.

But with local governments facing huge budget problems, and with education accounting for almost 70 percent of municipal spending, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities is calling for an end to the  requirement.

“Don’t prohibit municipalities from reducing property-tax funded appropriations due to declining school enrollments and other factors that reduce the cost of delivering education services,” reads CCM’s legislative agenda.

The Council of Small Towns also supports throwing out the MBR.

“Given the economic tsunami that is coming, towns ought to have the flexibility to make improvements that will yield some savings,” said Bart Russell, executive director of COST. “With this new economic reality towns need to have some tools.”

Student enrollment in some towns has declined significantly in the last five years–in Meriden by 6 percent, New Britain by 7 percent and Bridgeport by 9 percent–but the local governments have been unable to reduce their spending.

“In an era in which governments are looking for budget efficiencies, the MBR is an anachroism,” the CCM agenda says. “In an era of limits, with frozen (or reduced) aid and rising costs, this is patently unfair. It means every other local service  and every other local employee must pay the price for the State’s mandate.”

But local school officials support the minimum spending requirement, saying it protects education.

Superintendent of Meriden Public Schools Mark Benigni has been on both sides of the debate, having served as mayor for 6 years before becoming the superintendent.

He said his position has always been the required amount of spending is a good thing.

“We definitely need that. Without that schools would be at-risk of major cuts,” he said.

Several state legislators have proposed tying the budget requirement to student enrollment and savings realized or eliminating it if state or federal funding declines.

Robert A. Frahm contributed to this story.