Education: Budget spares K-12 funding but slashes colleges

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy spared early, primary and secondary education from budget cuts, and beefed up spending on school choice, but he is proposing a $143.5 million reduction to public colleges and universities over the next two years.

“Yes, this budget asks our colleges and universities to step up just as the rest of state government must, but we are preserving their independence,” Malloy said during his 37-minute budget address before the state House of Representative and Senate, where he spent almost one-quarter of the time talking about his plans for education.

The combined operating budgets of the University of Connecticut, Connecticut State University System, the dozen community colleges and the online Charter Oak State College is almost $2 billion, of which $652.2 million is paid for from the state’s general fund in block grants.

Gena Glickman, president of Manchester Community College who attended Malloy’s budget address, said despite the forewarning that higher education was on his radar for cuts, it still comes as a shock.

“Anytime we talk about a budget cut it’s important to remember how this will impact our students’ tuition,” she said. “I can’t predict what will happen with our tuition levels.”

This cut undoubtedly will put pressure on colleges and universities to offset losses by raising tuition, but officials Wednesday said it was too early to assess the impact.

“We just can’t project what this is going to mean on tuition yet,” said Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti. “But you can’t really say ‘Ahhha, this is going to lead to tuition increases.'”

Officials at the community college system in December voted to increase tuition for the upcoming school year by almost 3 percent — to almost $3,500 a year for in-state students. But that increase was with the assumption that state funding would not be cut. Trustees of the four-campus CSU system voted to freeze tuition late last year, but they warned that could only be maintained if state funding did not drop drastically.

“It’s going to be difficult. We’re going to have to wait and see how the numbers come back,” said Richard Balducci, vice chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Connecticut State University System, unable to guarantee the freeze would remain in effect. The university system absorbed about a $13 million cut in state funding last year, and Malloy’s proposal would trim another $17.6 million in the coming year.

“To cut the general fund again is going to be harmful… I don’t see how it would not be,” Balducci said.

The proposed cuts come against the backdrop of a recent report by the legislature’s research office saying that the growth in higher education budgets has far outstripped the level of state General Fund support for the institutions.

While combined spending by the state’s three higher education systems — UConn, CSUS and the Connecticut Community Colleges — grew by nearly 230 percent over two decades, the General Fund contribution increased by less than 83 percent, according to the Office of Legislative Research.

Meanwhile, in-state tuition and fees increased by 239 percent at the community colleges, 284 percent at UConn and nearly 353 percent at CSUS.

Lawmakers were optimistic that the institutions will find savings to make up for a reduction in state spending.

UConn is expected to receive a report soon from an outside firm detailing how they can shave $50 million a year from their budget. Malloy’s proposed budget cuts state support to UConn by about $25 million a year.

“I think everyone was ready to face a cut so they have been making contingency plans to deal with that and I hope tuition is their last resort,” said Rep. Roberta B. Willis, D-Salisbury and co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee.

House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said he hopes the savings from much of the higher education consolidations Malloy announced last week will offset much of these cuts.

“These institutions will be getting more of a bang for their buck,” he said. “Look, this is shared sacrifice.”

Malloy expressed hope during his speech that the cuts will not result in tuition increases and universities will “demonstrate the creativity, the intelligence and the resolve to live within their block grants without raising tuition.”

House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, agrees the cuts should not lead to tuition increases.

“They know there’s a lot of fat in [higher education]… I have to give the governor credit for that,” he said.

Timothy Bannon, Malloy’s chief of staff, said while the governor was reluctant to slash state spending for higher education, the administration “hopes they can deliver the same services but at a lower cost. It’s really the challenge we’re all operating on. We should all rise to that occasion and I think our public institutions can.”

At the other end of the education spectrum, early childhood education programs were level funded — and in some cases increased — and Malloy stuck to his campaign promise to continue to give $1.9 billion to towns to offset their costs for education.

“Many communities obviously will still see a reduction in [school] staff, but we’re very pleased with the governor’s commitment,” said Patrice McCarthy, deputy director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. “Given the economic circumstances, I think it’s a very responsible proposal.”

Although the state lost some $270 million in federal stimulus money that had propped up education funding, the governor’s budget would fill that gap and hold education support at current levels – a pledge that was greeted with relief by education officials.

Filling the education budget gap left by the loss of federal stimulus money “was an extremely tall order,” said John Yrchik, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

“I think he’s done as much in this budget as we could reasonably expect,” said Yrchik.

In his budget address, Malloy called on teachers to sacrifice salary raises that would result in more layoffs and larger class sizes. Yrchik said more than half of the contracts negotiated in the past year resulted in no pay increase and that teachers “will certainly continue to hear the concerns of their communities.”

The governor’s budget also included substantial increases for school choice programs. He is proposing an additional $70 million for 10,047 new seats in magnet, charter and the Open Choice program that sends urban students to suburban schools.

The programs are key elements in the effort to comply with a 1986 court order in the Sheff vs. O’Neill legal case requiring the state to reduce racial isolation in Hartford’s public schools.

Martha Stone, a lawyer for the Sheff plaintiffs, said she was still awaiting details on how the money would be spent but added, “We’re heartened to see the governor included more money to increase the number of magnet school seats and a substantial amount of money for Open Choice.

“We feel it will go a long way toward complying with the Sheff agreement.”

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford and co-chair of the Higher Education Committee and a longtime early childhood educator, said the state has invested in Higher Education for a long time and is happy to see the focus turn to early and primary education.

“We have made some major investments in higher education. Just walk around their campuses. The K-12 system has been struggling,” she said.