Education funding: Malloy wants to back off state formula

Fiscal and political realities have caught up with the plan to implement a much touted new formula for how the state pays for education.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is asking state legislators to ignore the formula they adopted last spring, a move that would relieve the state from having to send school districts another $6 million next school year. The Democratic governor’s latest bill instead would have the state increase funding for the state’s main education grant by $41 million (a 2 percent increase) instead of the $47 million the formula requires.

Of the $6 million in additional funding the new formula calls for, $5.6 million would be directed at the state’s nine lowest-performing districts — Bridgeport, East Hartford, Hartford, Meriden, New Britain, New Haven, Norwich, Waterbury and Windham — the legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal office reports.

“The communities that are harmed [by not following the formula] are the communities that have had huge increases in poverty but have been capped,” Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, the Senate chairwoman of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, told the governor’s education commissioner during a recent meeting.

But Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor told Bye and other legislators that 55 school districts will lose money if the formula is followed.

“They would have seen decreases and the formula nonetheless would have cost more. So that was perceived as an unfavorable outcome,” Pryor said during the budget workshop.

How the administration concluded that dozens of towns stood to lose money (including a rundown of which towns) and what methodology was used in making new funding-level recommendations for the coming year is unclear. Legislators are waiting for that information.

“I am just wondering how we got to the point where the formula we worked on last year was bracketed out,” said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

town-by-town rundown by the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis of the adopted formula outlines that no town loses money from what they currently receive if the formula is followed. Rather, 55 towns would not get as large an increase as the governor’s budget office estimated in September they would get for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

To provide those towns with the funding that the Office of Policy and Management originally estimated they would get would cost the state $1.1 million. Add that to the $6 million in additional funding the formula dictates high-need towns receive for education once poverty and need are calculated into the formula, it would cost the state $7.1 million more.

The administration’s recommendation opts the state out of using the new formula that set funding benchmarks for the state to follow so more money is directed to municipalities with less ability to raise revenue locally, high concentrations of poverty and a higher number of high-need students that typically cost more to educate. The state’s 10 neediest districts would have received 22 percent of what the formula dictates the state should be paying them next year.

Instead, the governor wants to give Bridgeport $1.2 million less than the new benchmark, Hartford $600,000 less, New Haven $900,000 less and Waterbury $1.3 million less.

Education funding: Funding formula vs. Malloy’s proposal
The governor is asking legislators to ignore the state funding formula crafted last year. This would save the state from spending $6 million that primarily would have gone to areas with more high-need students and towns least able to raise money locally, while also retaining funding for dozens of other municipalities
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Source: Office of Fiscal Analysis
Alvin Chang and Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CT Mirror

This recommendation comes as the state’s top lawyers prepare for a Sept. 9 trial to determine whether the state is spending enough money for students to receive a “suitable” education.

“Even at this 11th hour the Administration has opted to ignore correcting its K-12 budget priorities,” the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding — the group of mayors, school boards, teachers’ unions and parents suing the state — wrote in testimony submitted to legislators last month.

The plaintiffs in that case call the recent increases in education funding “trivial” and “meager” and say the $142 million in additional funding that has been sent to districts over the last four years amounts to no more than adjustments for inflation.

Malloy thinks differently.

“We are sending millions of additional dollars to districts — particularly those districts that we have highlighted as lower performing than they should be — and literally millions and millions of additional dollars in a focused way are being sent to places like Bridgeport and New Haven and Hartford and Waterbury with real strings attached, requiring that there’s proof that the money is being spent wisely, and that it’s driving additional achievement in the school system,” the governor said during a radio interview with WATR-1320, a station based in Waterbury.

When Malloy was mayor of Stamford, he was part of the coalition suing the state. Now as governor in the last year of his term, radio host Larry Rifkin asked him whether he would be suing the state if he were still mayor.

“It is a very significant change in what is happening in Connecticut than when that lawsuit was started and I think that is one of the things that will be contested,” Malloy responded.

“You know, we are in fact sending more money to those urban environments and some of the very poorest rural districts as well,” Malloy said. “That doesn’t mean that we are sending more money to Darien or to Greenwich or other more affluent communities because what we did is change the formula to concentrate on the communities that were not getting proper funding. That didn’t happen before I became governor. There was no system to make sure the money was going to those communities that were lagging behind in performance.

“That is a gigantic change from when I was the mayor of the city of Stamford,” he said.

Stamford’s current mayor, coincidentally, was telling legislators a different story during an informational hearing taking place at the state Capitol complex at the same time Malloy was on the radio.

“The state of Connecticut is the most Balkanized state in the country,” said David Martin, a Democrat and member of the coalition suing the state.

In addition to the administration seeking to limit spending increases to the main funding grant for education (the ECS grant), the administration is also seeking to flat fund several other smaller education grants towns rely on. These grants — which help towns pay for special education, adult education, bilingual education and transportation — have been capped for many years. If funding were provided for the amount towns are eligible for, the state would have to spend $52.6 million more, the governor’s budget chief reports.

Pryor’s announcement that towns will lose state aid if Malloy’s ECS proposal is not adopted is sure to add momentum to the push to make legislators throw out the formula in the coming year. It’s unlikely many legislators will vote for cutting education aid for the towns they represent.

“I think we’re all just looking for the crux of how this [change from the formula] took place and make sure everyone’s held whole,” Rep. Jay Case, a Republican who represents Colebrook, Goshen, Torrington and Winchester, told the education commissioner during the workshop.

But Bye, the co-chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, isn’t so sure every municipality should be kept whole.

“How do we ever get to a [education] formula that actually runs if no one can lose?” she asked.

She pointed out that if a town loses 10,000 students or a big corporation moves in and poverty goes down, then maybe state aid should decline.

But Pryor, the education commissioner, responded by saying holding towns harmless is just a “political reality” that the state has to work around by spending what new dollars are available on those who need it the most.

Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, House chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee, agrees.

“For a number of years neither the administration — any administration — nor the General Assembly, has decided to have the guts to say your district is going to have its [education] funding drop this year… and the grant for this other district that has tremendous rising needs goes up. So some of it’s on us,” he said.

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