State Education Commissioner Charlene Russel-Tucker (left) and Gov. Ned Lamont talk with an educator in Haddam about schools returning as children play kickball in the background. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / Connecticut Public Radio

Connecticut cities and towns enjoyed a very modest increase in town aid in Gov. Ned Lamont’s new budget plan, but they gained a foothold elsewhere that could prove more valuable.

The administration, which initially insisted towns were largely on the hook for upgrading air quality in their schools, reversed itself Wednesday, pledging $90 million to help pay for mechanical upgrades as Connecticut tries to move past the coronavirus.

The governor’s $24.2 billion proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1 also includes new funding to help implement the school choice plan announced as part of the plan to settle the long-running Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation case.

And the governor also proposed new relief to help the state’s university system climb out of the pandemic.

“It takes a strong person to concede, or at least make some movement,” Coventry First Selectman John Elsesser, one of the local officials who advocated most strongly for state help with the air quality issue, said of the governor’s latest proposal. “I think this shows understanding it is a joint [state and local] role. We very much appreciate that.”

The air quality debate made headlines last summer when Coventry was informed by Lamont’s budget office that the state wouldn’t help to pay to upgrade aging ventilators in its middle and high schools — an expensive proposition, made more pressing by the continued presence of the coronavirus.

Connecticut currently reimburses communities for between 10% and 71% of new construction and wide-scale renovation projects designed to last 20 years or longer, depending largely upon a community’s wealth.

But if a district wants to perform a smaller project — such as replacing or upgrading a heating/ventilation system exclusive of a major facility renovation — the entire cost is borne locally.

Both the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Connecticut Council of Small Towns appealed to the governor and legislature to reassess the state’s position.

Lamont on Wednesday proposed $90 million in state funding next fiscal year to help towns cover these costs. Towns would have to match at least 50% of any state grant they receive.

“I’m encouraged that the governor is willing to commit to addressing what we’ve identified as a real risk to our students and staff, given the age of many schools’ HVAC systems,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport.

Steinberg, co-chairman of the Public Health Committee, said last summer he believes many in the legislature would support a state-local joint solution.

“One of the big problems we’re facing is looking at improving school air quality, and I know a lot of legislators, all of us are looking at what we can do,” said Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, House ranking member on the Education Committee.

Town aid gets a modest bump upward

Cities and towns in general saw state aid remain flat in the governor’s budget, though it does continue a 10-year plan launched in 2018 to bolster the Education Cost Sharing grant, the state’s single-largest program to help fund K-12 schools. 

The ECS program would grow by about $40 million starting July 1, according to the governor’s budget.

The governor’s budget also includes $26.2 million to fund additional school choice seats, transportation costs and other expenses tied to the Sheff settlement.

“We’re investing in our kids and giving them better opportunities at the starting line of life,” the governor said in his budget address. “We’re investing in teachers, counselors and after-school programs to help our kids get back in the game after a long COVID winter.”

Jamilah Prince-Stewart, executive director of FaithActs for Education, said with the state’s huge budget reserve and surplus, Lamont could have proposed accelerating the ECS expansion.

“The state, currently in law, is saying that you have to wait until 2028 to get what you deserve, and we’re saying, ‘No, the time is now,’” she said. “We want to make sure those funds are in place by 2025.”

Amy Dowell, director of the Connecticut chapter of Education Reform Now, also was looking to see more proposed to enhance education at grades K through 12.

“But we have a surplus of resources here in Connecticut right now, and we have still quite a bit of [federal pandemic relief] funding to spend,” Dowell said. “And we think this is an opportunity for a lot of creativity, and … this seems like a very limited commitment to making meaningful change for younger students.”

Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said she’s pleased about the funding going toward Hartford-area schools as part of the Sheff settlement but added that Lamont’s budget “doesn’t take care of the other large districts like Bridgeport and New Haven.”

Lamont’s plan also would maintain a program to bolster key non-education grants that reimburse communities for a portion of the revenue they lose because property owned by the state and by most colleges and hospitals is tax exempt.

PILOT, or Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, grants rose $120 million this fiscal year and would climb by another $14 million in the governor’s budget.

“Investing in state aid commitments to towns and cities will go a long way toward restraining the financial burden on Connecticut’s overburdened property taxpayers,” CCM wrote in a statement Wednesday that also praised Lamont for a plan to freeze local taxes on cars in more than 100 Connecticut communities.

“Preserving municipal aid, investing in infrastructure and addressing the public health and safety needs of our communities is critical to positioning Connecticut for social and economic recovery,” added Betsy Gara, executive director of the Council of Small Towns.

Helping state universities get past the pandemic

About $65 million in new funds would be sent in total to the four regional state universities to help with tuition assistance and to cover additional expenses they faced in 2020 and 2021 because of the coronavirus.

On-campus enrollment at the state universities in particular fell well short of expectations in the fall of 2020, the first new semester after the coronavirus hit the state.

“The governor’s always been supportive of higher education,” Richard J. Balducci, chairman of the finance committee of the Board of Regents for Higher Education. “He recognizes we’ve had some real problems with tuition and room and board.”

The legislature used $81.3 million in total from last fiscal year’s surplus to increase funding for all of Connecticut’s higher education units to help weather pandemic-related costs. Besides the state universities, other recipients included the University of Connecticut and its Farmington-based health center, the community colleges, and online Charter Oak State College.

The governor’s budget maintains $64 million of that aid, cutting back about one-quarter of the emergency aid for UConn and the health center.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

Adria was CT Mirror's Education and Community Reporter. She grew up in Oakland, graduated from Sacramento State where she was co-news editor of the student newspaper, and worked as a part-time reporter at CalMatters. Most recently Adria interned at The Marshall Project, a national nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice issues. Adria was one of CT Mirror’s Report For America Corps Members.