Malloy provides some relief to small town leaders

Standing before municipal leaders at the state Capitol complex Wednesday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he has changed his mind about cutting state funding to small communities if they don't reduce the high costs of running their schools over the next few years.

He does want the state to study ways that the smaller districts spend money on education, however.

When he introduced his sweeping education reform bill two months ago, Malloy proposed that the $79 million in school funding the state gives small districts each year be cut if a town spends what the state considers to be an exorbitant sum per student. The administration has said that more than about $15,400 per student is unacceptable.

"I am just trying to get people to have the discussion," he said Wednesday, explaining the proposal highlighted the need for neighboring small districts to merge certain school functions to bring down costs.

This proposal -- giving districts four school years to bring down their costs, and to have a state study regionalizing schools in the interim -- faced immediate pushback from leaders of the state's 49 small towns. If implemented in the coming fiscal year, 18 small towns that collectively receive $12.5 million a year would been deemed as spending too much on education and have their state funding cut.

"We're being responsible by spending what it takes, while the state hasn't," Canaan First Selectwoman Patricia Ally Mechare said in February of her district's spending $22,450 a year per student.

When Malloy faced town leaders Wednesday, cutting small-town budgets was on their minds.

"Thomaston is teetering ... Are we going to be forced" to cut costs and regionalize? one leader asked him.

Mark Ojakian, the governor's chief of staff, said during an interview that this component of a much larger education bill is not a sticking point for the administration.

"We are fine with a study," he said.

State legislators and the administration have two weeks to reach agreement on an education reform package. Other controversial sections of the governor's original bill include linking teacher tenure and certification to their performance evaluations and giving the state's education commissioner broad authority to intervene in the lowest-performing schools.

Malloy told town leaders that he wants the state to "step in, preferably on an agreed upon basis" in these schools. Asked after the meeting if the state should be required to get permission to take over a school, from the local school board, for example, Malloy said, "No, I am not saying that they have a veto. What I'm saying is that our absolute preference would be to work with boards of education and mayors and first selectmen."

Malloy also told municipal leaders that despite a looming $142 million deficit, he will not cut state aid to towns. However, he continued to warn them that they should not rely on the $50 million in increased funding he has proposed for education unless the legislature sends a "meaningful" education reform package to him to sign into law.