The state budget working its way through the legislature avoids redistributing state education dollars away from well-off communities and toward struggling districts, as the state’s school funding formula had directed.
This so-called “hold harmless” provision — the historical ethos at the Capitol that no city or town, regardless of its wealth, should get less than it did the previous year — was not included in the school funding formula the legislature adopted in 2017 as it waited for the Supreme Court to weigh in on whether the way the state funds schools is rational and constitutional.
At the time, the state was spending $15 million a year to avoid making cuts to town education aid called for under the formula.
The final budget expected to pass Wednesday will shield 81 middle-income and affluent towns that would have otherwise lost $7.1 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and $14.2 million the following year.
Sen. Cathy Osten, the co-chair of the legislature’s powerful budget writing committee, explained on the Senate floor Wednesday why the hold-harmless provision was included in the budget.
“It was a recommendation, or request, by the governor that we hold harmless towns that were going to see a decrease in funding,” she said. “In order to deal with the pandemic, we did hold harmless towns across the board… but those towns that we held harmless for these two years will see a decrease in funding in the third and fourth year relative to their population. … There will be a point where some of those towns will see a decrease in funding.”
The inclusion of the “hold harmless” provision comes with less controversy than in previous years, when the state faced deficits and funding additional state education was a long shot. During those deficit years, calls to redirect the education dollars away from well-off communities to low-income districts were constant.
Next year, the state is boosting school aid by $45.6 million, a 2.2% boost, most of which is directed at those low-income districts. This is accomplished by sending more toward districts for each English Language Learner they enroll and towards districts that have high concentrations of students who come from low-income families. There has also been over $1 billion in pandemic aid directed largely toward impoverished districts from the federal government to help schools over this and the next three years.
Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford and the co-chairman of the legislature’s education committee, said he generally doesn’t support holding towns harmless, but the pandemic put that philosophy on hold. That’s because the state saw a record 3.1% drop in the number of students enrolling in school this year — 17,844 fewer students — and it is unclear whether those students will show up for school next year.
“I think because of the pandemic, because we couldn’t get the exact count of students, we wanted to hold every community harmless. The numbers were out of whack this year,” said McCrory.
But the plan is to start following the formula and stop holding towns harmless in two years.
“We all know that the students are reducing for a number of years. It’s just not a good way of doing business to give money for students that aren’t enrolled there. We want to make sure the money is where the students are,” he said.