State officials: Bridgeport, Hartford, New Britain, Windham must spend more on schools

One thing is certain in the budget legislators passed this week: The state will soon be spending an additional $90 million in new funding in an effort to improve the state’s lowest-performing districts.

But a larger question looms: Will municipalities be required to spend more on education, too? Top state budget officials say the answer is likely ‘yes.’ But this spending requirement was omitted from the near unanimously approved education reform package.

Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, who was at the state Capitol on the last day of the legislative session, is waiting to hear how much more his city will have to spend on education, and when.

“We haven’t heard yet,” he said.

Both Ben Barnes, the governor’s budget chief, and Sen. Toni Harp, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said they intend to address this in a follow-up legislative session that will take place in the next few weeks.

“It’s reasonable. If the state’s going to send them more money, then they should, too,” Harp said Wednesday. “Districts need to kick in more.”

“It’s something that will be addressed,” Barnes said.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in February proposed that the lowest-performing districts spend more on education to become eligible for new state money.

In Bridgeport, for example, city leaders would be required to boost the portion of their education budget they are covering to 20 percent for the coming school year. In four years, they would be required to cover 30 percent of their school budget. Bridgeport’s education budget currently receives 19 percent from the city and most of the remainder from the state.

These minimum budget requirements would also impact Hartford, New Britain and Windham by the time it reaches 30 percent. Other low-achieving districts would not be permitted to cut their funding below 30 percent.

But this initiative was temporarily stalled when legislative leaders learned it would cost Bridgeport more than $3.6 million this upcoming year to comply. Harp said she would like to give Bridgeport officials until the 2013-14 school year to increase their funding share.

“That’s money they don’t have. They are starved,” said James Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “This bill was not an education finance reform bill. This requirement needs to be saved for when that is addressed.”

Municipal leaders have been complaining for years that the state is not spending their fair share for education. The Connecticut Supreme Court recently ruled the state is responsible for providing an “adequate” education, and sent the case to the lower court to determine if the state’s current level of funding is sufficient.

The state will spend $3.7 billion on education this fiscal year, about one-fifth of the state’s total budget. The problem is that in order for the state’s funding formula to work as intended, it needs at least an additional $724 million each year, according to top state education officials.

Barnes and Harp said they plan to take up the municipal spending requirement when legislators reconvene.

“It’s going to be the subject of an implementer,” Barnes, a former Bridgeport school budget chief, said. “I know there were some concerns that it was too aggressive… But we need local government to put in an adequate effort to their education system. We will make sure that happens.”

Harp, who is from New Haven, said these four cities must step up. Thirty-two percent of New Haven’s education budget is appropriated by the city.

“If New Haven, a very poor city, can do it. Then any other city can, too,” she said.