Towns told to make up for state education cuts

Shortly after the governor imposed $58 million in midyear cuts to state education aid for 130 communities last November, the state informed superintendents their districts would lose even more state funding if they compensated by cutting their own budgets by more than the administration has determined the law allows.

Now the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has told six communities they are facing penalties for cutting too much. The penalty is twice the amount of the cut deemed excessive.

The towns that have been notified are:

  • Killingly, one of the state’s lowest-achieving districts, is on pace to reduce spending on its schools by almost 10 percent this school year. The town faces a penalty of $7.9 million. (Read notification letter here.)
  • Southington wants to cut its school budget by 3 percent and faces a $3.2 million penalty.
  • Watertown is slated to reduce school spending by 4 percent and faces a $2 million fine.
  • Canterbury wants to cut school spending by 5 percent and faces a $502,000 penalty.
  • Montville plans to cut spending by 3 percent, for which it faces a $355,000 penalty.
  • Groton, also one of the worst-achieving districts, planned to cut 2 percent and faced a $3.1 million fine. The superintendent, however, said that the town has since made up for shortfall and expects the district not to face any penalties.

More districts are not being threatened with penalties because local spending was already on pace to make up for the cut or because local leaders scrambled and found more local funding after being told they would be required to spend more.

The state education department says it is confident the six districts notified of penalties eventually will comply.

This administration’s decision to force local governments to make up for midyear state education cuts is prompting criticism from top state lawmakers.

Last week, the Democrat and Republican leaders of the state Senate and the Republican leader of the state House of Representatives, wrote the State Board of Education asking that they exempt towns from what is known as the Minimum Budget Requirement, or MBR.

“In order to fully comply with the leaders’ true intentions in this [budget] bill to have the MBR be based on money actually received by municipalities, not theoretically allotted, we are writing to ask that you exercise your authority,” wrote Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, Senate Republican leader Len Fasano and House Republican leader Themis Klarides.

The state board’s next meeting is scheduled for April 4, and so far has no plans to take up the issue because no towns have requested a waiver from the minimum spending requirements. Malloy, a Democrat, generally does not support allowing towns to reduce spending on education.

“I think that’s a misguided effort on the legislators’ part, but they get to write letters and say things that they want to say,” he told reporters last week. “In difficult times, difficult decisions need to be made, and that’s a local decision, but we have a state law that requires minimum expenditures.”

State law does allow towns to cut spending between 1.5 and 3 percent from year to year if enrollment declines, a school closes or a district can document savings to the education department. Also, reductions in the state’s primary education grant – the Education Cost Sharing grant – can allow a corresponding cut from a town’s education budget.

However, the administration believes the $58 million in midyear cuts – called holdbacks – aren’t technically cuts because the funding is only being held back in anticipation of deficits and is not formally considered a cut until the fiscal year ends June 30.

Legislative leaders took issue with Malloy’s targeting of education aid for the holdbacks, but the adopted budget required him to cut a total of $880 million from the state budget without telling him where. That left him with few choices since education aid makes up such a large share of the state spending and so many areas of the budget are off limits because they are locked in by contracts.

Legislative leaders have had four months since Malloy announced the midyear education cuts to pass legislation to restore the funding and make cuts elsewhere.

Meanwhile, small towns are being punished for the state’s budget problems, Betsy Gara, the executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, wrote legislative leaders recently.

“This is penalizing towns that have done everything right – worked hard to reduce local budget expenditures and control property tax levels to protect taxpayers,” she wrote. “Despite these efforts, they are now being penalized.”

Peter Yazbak, a spokesman for the education department, said it is working with school districts to comply with the spending requirements, and that three of the six districts have informed the department that additional local funding will be provided to comply.

“We are working with the other three communities, and are confident they will also reach a resolution,” he said.

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