Officials at the State Department of Education are notifying officials in 11 cities and towns that they are in violation of state law setting minimum spending requirements for education and that they must increase their school appropriations for the current fiscal year.”If they don’t comply soon then we will have to figure out what the next step is,” said Brian Mahoney, the longtime chief financial officer for the SDE.
In order to receive state education funding grants, the law requires school districts to spend at least as much each year than they did the previous year. For the first time a significant number of districts have submitted budget figures to the state that do not comply with the minimum spending requirement.
“This is unprecedented. This has never happened before,” said Mahoney. He said in the nearly 30 years of the state imposing minimum spending or appropriations requirements for districts, fewer then 10 incidents have occurred of districts failing to meet the requirement.
This year 11 districts have adopted budgets that spend less than the required amount, according to SDE figures. They are Bristol, Columbia, Derby, East Windsor, Franklin, Hartford, Lisbon, Mansfield, Preston, Salem and Winchester.
“It must be the recession that’s catching up with their budgets,” said Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education.
Taylor and Mahoney said the state will be forced to take action against the non-complying districts if they don’t increase their school budgets. Possible options include legal action or withholding state funding.
Mahoney has told districts that they have until Thursday to let the department know what their plans are. He said he expects there will be some districts that respond that they cannot resolve the issue locally and need the state to step in.
One of those districts is likely to be Winchester, where town and school officials are in a dispute over a $1.4 million gap in the education budget.
“I must report that I do not expect that the Town will provide funding at this required level,” Superintendent Thomas M. Danehy wrote Mahoney last week. Danehy accused the board of selectmen are offering “fictitious savings” to justify not allocating more money for the schools.
Selectwoman Lisa Smith said the board if not going to budge on the issue.
“I just don’t understand how giving them millions and millions of more dollars is going to solve the problems facing education,” she said. “I am not willing to go back to the taxpayers and ask for more money… It’s a very frustrating position we are in.”
Mayor Candy Perez, a local principal who supports giving the schools more money, said the dispute is not going to be resolved without some action by the state.
“When two sides are in a stalemate the state agency needs to intervene,” she said.
This tug-of-war for funding between town councils and school boards has existed for years, but Bristol Superintendent Philip Streifer says the recession is the “straw that finally broke the camel’s back.”
Bristol’s school budget is $2.6 million short of the minimum requirement. Streifer, who is also the head of the Connecticut Association of Urban School Superintendents, says said he is hopeful his town council will decided to fill the gap.
“They respect the law. They may not be happy with it, though,” he said. “School districts and towns are at loggerheads everywhere and we are going to keep having these issues unless something changes.”
David Medina, a spokesman for Hartford Public Schools, said the mayor’s office has informed the district that they intend to appropriate more money for the schools so they are in compliance with the law.
The legislature did attempt to give towns and school districts some relief this year by passing a law that allows them to cut spending if enrollment declines under certain conditions. But the change only applies to districts that have have met federal benchmarks under the federal No Child Left Behind Law. Districts with high levels of poverty were also restricted from cutting spending.
Without this change in law, seven of the 11 districts that are set to spend less than the required amount would have been much further in the hole. For example, Columbia’s school budget is $159,000 short of the minimum; without the new law, if would have been $275,000 below the required appropriations.
About one-fifth of the state’s school districts are spending the same as last year. Sixteen of those 30 school districts were able to cut their budgets below what they spent last year, but elected not to, according to the SDE figures.