Gov. Dannel P. Malloy continued his budget preview tour Tuesday, sharing his plan to boost the state’s major education grant to cities and towns by $152.3 million over the next two fiscal years, with nearly all the increase earmarked for low-achieving districts.
But Malloy, who will propose his new biennial budget to the General Assembly Wednesday, hinted that he would not cut other municipal grant programs to pay for the Education Cost Sharing increase — though he refused to promise anything outright.
“You know what I did for 14 years, and you probably know where I am coming from on this stuff,” said Malloy, the former mayor of Stamford.
Malloy was joined by the education commissioner and teacher union officials at a news conference outside his Capitol office as he named education a priority in a difficult fiscal year.
“This is about priorities, and you’re going to hear that word quite a bit tomorrow. It is time that Connecticut set its priorities,” Malloy said. “And education, workforce development and job attraction have to be our top priorities. So we’re going to spend money in keeping with those priorities.”
Ninety-five percent of the new funding proposed by Malloy for education would be directed to the state’s 30 lowest-performing districts. In the fiscal year that begins July 1, $48 million of the $50.8 million boost would be directed to these Alliance Districts. In the next year, $95.9 million of the $101.5 million boost would go to these districts.
Persuading legislators from the other 139 towns in the state to agree to spend most of this money in other districts may prove to be a political challenge for Malloy.
Malloy linked the day’s announcement to the education reforms passed last year.
“Today, we are reaffirming that commitment with additional funding so that we can build on the good work being done by our teachers and education leaders. We have an obligation to each and every student in our schools to provide them with a quality public education so they can compete in the 21st century economy. By recommitting these resources, we are taking a giant step forward toward achieving that goal,” the governor said.
No community would receive less ECS funding next year, the governor said, adding that funding for the growing costs of special education is not addressed in this initiative.
The state distributes a total of $1.9 billion in its current budget to municipal school districts through the ECS program. That represents about two-thirds of all municipal aid.
Twenty-two percent of the current $20.5 billion state budget is spent on cities and towns. That includes about $3.5 billion in grants, and just over $930 million in payments into the teachers’ pension program.
But with state finances projected to run about $1.2 billion in the red next fiscal year based on current spending and revenue trends — an operating shortfall of about 6 percent — Malloy would be hard pressed to add any funding to education without finding matching cuts elsewhere.
That’s because Malloy also has insisted he won’t seek any new taxes in his plan — a pledge that the Democratic governor’s Republican critics already are questioning.
So if ECS will rise by $152.3 through the next two fiscal years under the governor’s plan, will any other aid to cities and towns be reduced?
“You’re going to have to wait a little while,” Malloy initially responded, referring to his Wednesday budget presentation.
But when pressed again about whether any other grants or categories of municipal aid would shrink, the governor replied: “I would caution you to be careful about writing that, knowing what my prior profession was for 14 years.”
Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor made it very clear that this additional funding for districts cannot be used solely to close their budget deficits. When applying with the department for the funding, he told reporters that districts will be expected to show that the “substantial majority” will be spent to implement the new teacher evaluations, national Common Core State Standards and/or turnaround plans for specific low-performing schools.
But, with districts like Hartford facing a deficit as large as $14 million for the coming school year, Pryor said some of the new funding would be able to be used to help close those gaps.
“It should be possible with a portion of the dollars,” he said.
Hartford Superintendent Christina M. Kishimoto said during an interview at the state Capitol after the announcement that the additional dollars will mean potentially avoiding more layoffs. In the last few years, the district has had to lay off 400 staff, which included some teachers.
“This isn’t necessarily going to close [Hartford schools’] funding gap,” she said.
Pryor said the expectation is not that this new funding directed at certain districts will pick up the entire cost of implementing the teacher evaluation and Common Core, but it will help. The department is also providing support for both initiatives to help with training and other implementation costs.
Elizabeth Brown, a member of Waterbury’s Board of Education, said the $6.1 million in new funding Malloy is proposing for her school system next year would reward her district for having moved forward with evaluations and common core standards.
“This is good news,” she said after the announcement.
Melodie Peters, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, a teachers’ union, said the administration’s proposed increase is “putting their money where their mouth is.”
As mayor in Stamford, Malloy joined a coalition suing the state for what the group classifies as a “chronic underfunding” of education. That coalition in the spring of 2010 won a key victory when the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state is responsible for providing every child an “adequate” education.
Next year, the court is expected to take up what constitutes an “adequate” education, and whether the state is providing enough funding for it to be achieved.
Asked Tuesday if this $152.3 million boost gets the state to an adequate funding level, Malloy said it does not, but all the reforms are helping.
It “is moving us in that direction,” he said.
Education funding has been largely shielded from cuts for the last two years as the state closed a large budget deficit. During his first year in office, Malloy filled the $270 million gap in education funding created by a decrease in federal stimulus dollars. For the current fiscal year, Malloy increased education funding for towns in 2012-13 by $50 million.
The specific amount each district is being recommended to receive is based on a report approved by a panel co-chaired by the governor’s budget director and chairwoman of the legislature’s Education Committee. The major change to the current forumla would be that town need, and the ability for local revenue to pick up the cost of education, would be measured differently.
If adopted by the legislature, the formula would determine a town’s need by weighing median household income and property values. Need will also include how many students are receiving free and reduced-price meals at school, a measurement that is expected to nearly double the number of students considered low-income.
Malloy’s $101.5 million proposed boost in education spending for the 2014-15 school year is still $277.1 million under what that panel recommended is necessary.
Malloy said he is doing what he can in a difficult fiscal environment.
“I think to what people expected, it’s a great deal more… It is not as robust as we would like it to be,” he said.
Follow Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter @jacquelinerabe