By Tom Dunn
Mayor, Town of Wolcott
President, Connecticut Conference of Municipalities
At the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), we dedicated a lot of thought and effort to getting back to the future of our state.
Giving our towns and cities tools and resources as federal dollars come in, hosting the final gubernatorial debate where candidates laid out their vision for the future, but most importantly, we spent the year advocating for Connecticut’s schoolchildren.
Whether closing the digital divide, advocating for clean air, or inspiring children through motivational speakers, CCM is constantly seeking ways to help improve the quality of education in our municipalities. CCM considers public education a priority and knows that Governor Lamont and the legislatures agree that it is a priority.
It is important to note the cost of educating Connecticut’s children is over $12.3 billion dollars a year. The state, through various grants, funds just under half of this expense, leaving municipalities the burden of raising over $6 billion dollars. With limited resources for raising these funds, municipal property taxpayers to foot most of this bill.
For their part, the state’s portion is funded primarily by two grants. The Education Cost Sharing (ECS) Grant and the Special Education Excess Cost Grant. These funds are essential to the local education system – they couldn’t run without it. But for years they have relied on out-of-date formulas that are simply not aligned with local needs and have underfunded the programs. And, especially for Special Education needs, this can have drastic implications on a town or cities ability to budget with any certainty.
The ECS grant does not account for all students due to systemic issues in the formula that diminish the aid to communities in need. English learners, students who are economically disadvantaged, and students navigating through their education in communities that experience concentrated poverty are not currently having their needs met.
Although ECS is currently in a ten-year time period that would see it fully-funded, this plan has not had the impact many would have liked to have seen. While it ultimately reaches the correct solution, by the time it gets there, it will be too late. Inflation has lately made an impact on the ability to buy critical resources – for every $10,000 spent in 2012, an additional $3,000 would have to be raised today. That extra money has to come from somewhere – and in Connecticut, it is the local taxpayer.
This is especially true for Special Education. Costs exceed $2.4 billion and continue to rise. Unfortunately, towns and cities pay for nearly two-thirds of these costs. And because the burden of providing this cost falls within a school district, if even one child moves from one town to another, there can be budget fluctuations in the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the case. In smaller towns, this can represent a large percentage of their ability to take in property tax dollars.
Furthermore, this underfunding doesn’t affect only our school children, but those educating them as well. It’s not hard to see the link between underfunding schools and the teacher shortages that have plagued the nation. The same retirement cliff that has caused the so-called Silver Wave in state government, has been acutely felt in teachers and paraprofessionals.
In the latter case there is a lack of skilled and certified workers making it increasingly difficult for local school districts to hire. CCM’s recommendation is to address the shortage by developing and funding an enhanced pathways program to increase the number of certified paraeducators and increase the number of potential teacher candidates in the pipeline through the mentorship of paraeducators.
While in years past we had heard that the state’s finances limited their ability to fully fund our public education, it is clear that Connecticut is in a better financial situation than it has been in decades. There is no excuse for not fully funding our public schools. The state can address the crisis in funding for local public education.
Connecticut has one of the best local public-school systems in the country in spite of these budget shortfalls. It’s not hard to imagine the benefits our state would receive from fully funding our education system. Starting with the ECS and Special Education Excess Cost grants, the state can help towns and cities make improvements to their local schools, and partnering with school districts to create a new pipeline of paraprofessionals and teachers would be transformative.
There are other issues to tackle – clean air in all classrooms, bridging the digital divide, and inspiring our students to view the classroom as a place they want to be. All that will come with strategic and intentional investment in our children. We look forward to working with the Governor Lamont and legislatures to make it a reality.