Democrats’ education cuts fall most heavily on CT’s Gold Coast

“Must we really send millions to Greenwich and New Canaan?”

That was the question Benjamin Barnes, the governor’s budget chief, asked the state education commissioner and other administration officials to consider as they built a budget proposal for the General Assembly in 2012.

On the table then were major cuts in state education funding for some of the wealthiest communities in the country –most along Connecticut’s so-called Gold Coast in Fairfield County, but also a handful of others scattered around the state.

“I am untroubled by the losers, and believe that we should not undertake heroic efforts for that group. That said, the decision to hold harmless is ultimately a tactical political call,” Barnes wrote in an email. The email was filed with the Superior Court by lawyers who are suing the state alleging that schools in the state’s poorest communities are chronically underfunded.

Politics would end up calling the shots, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed shielding wealthy communities from cuts in each of the five budgets he has proposed since.

That changed Tuesday when he proposed cutting all of the $25.3 million that 28 of the state’s richest communities currently receive through the Education Cost Sharing grant. The state’s 30 poorest communities would be shielded from cuts and the remaining 111 middle-income districts would lose $39.6 million.

“The proposal creates a more equitable distribution of education cost sharing, ECS grants,” Malloy, a Democrat, explained to reporters in his office at the state Capitol.

There seems to be agreement among Democratic legislators and the governor that cuts in education aid should target the more affluent communities, since budget cuts approved by the Appropriations Committee last week, though much smaller, would disproportionately impact wealthier communities.

This fiscal year, the state will send $2.058 billion to towns and cities for education through the Education Cost Sharing grant, the state’s primary payment to help municipalities pay for their schools.

While this grant has been regularly shielded from cuts in the past even when state budget deficits arose. This is believed to be the first time the state would provide no education funding to a district since the cost-sharing formula was created in 1983.

By design, this grant directs more funding to towns with high concentrations of high-need students and to poor communities that have the least ability to raise revenue locally. However, the legislature has routinely ignored the formula in recent years and shielded all towns from losing money, even if the formula called for it because their property values had increased or their enrollment had shrunk. This so-called hold-harmless provisions has benefited several more-affluent towns.

“When you don’t run the formula over 12 years things get out of balance,” said Sen. Beth Bye, a Democrat from West Hartford and the co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

Republican legislators are not pleased with the proposals, and say their communities are being unfairly targeted.

“To take it just from the wealthiest places, it’s sort of arbitrary,” said Rep. Gail Lavielle, a Republican. She represents Wilton, which would lose its entire $1.5 million grant under the governor’s budget. “One could look at this as political.”

Lavielle notes that the overwhelmingly majority of the towns that lose all of their money are represented by Republicans, legislators whose votes usually are not needed to pass a final state budget.

And some of the Democrats who represent the impacted towns are not happy, either.

“So the Governor thinks most Fairfield County towns need NO education funding from the state. Undermines any serious budget conversation,” Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, wrote on Twitter Wednesday. Westport would lose all of the $2 million in education aid it currently receives.

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