As I See It: In school aid debate, what’s ‘fair’ depends on where you live
Published 4:59 am, Saturday, April 30, 2016
Just as Fairfield was licking its wounds over being jilted by GE, Gov. Dannel Malloy came by and twisted the knife. He and the Hartford legislature have a budget problem that seems to get worse by the week, so he’s floating a proposal to eliminate all $3.5 million of state education grants due to Fairfield for 2016-17 (also on death row is more than $1 million in state sales tax rebates promised Fairfield).
Et tu, Dannel?
The governor would doubtless tell us that it’s nothing personal, and point to the 27 other towns across the state which, in his judgment, could afford to lose 100 percent of their state education grant, and redistribute the funds — almost $26 million — to those townships more in need. Gov. Malloy presented data on these 28 towns to justify his action in light of the “new economic reality” and “difficult choices” the state faces: http://bit.ly/1XVDC7b.
The timing of the governor’s unkind cut was less than ideal; the townside and education budgets, with the above grants baked in, had already gotten through the annual budget process gauntlet, with the RTM set for its final vote on Monday, May 2. Our state reps howled in protest, and town officials were rendered speechless. But at Monday’s RTM session, the town’s response seemed to take shape. More on that later, but this predicament got me to thinking: just what are these state grants, anyway?
Connecticut’s old system of funding public education in its municipalities got a shakeup in 1977. The state Supreme Court, in issuing a ruling on Horton v. Meskill, held that the right to education was fundamental, and that all public school students had equal entitlement to education. Guided by this principle, the court ruled (with one justice in dissent) that the state’s then-existing system of funding towns for public education — supplementing a town’s property tax revenues with a flat per-pupil state grant without regard for a town’s wealth — was unconstitutional. The system, in the eyes of the court, created significant town-to-town disparities in the ability to finance public schools, and therefore caused disparities in the quality of education.
The Supreme Court did not prescribe a remedy, but left it to the General Assembly to devise a granting system that would pass constitutional scrutiny. The legislature therefore developed a new system, now known as “Education Cost Sharing,” which aimed to have more state funds go to disadvantaged school districts and less to wealthier ones.
Over the years, several task forces have convened to tinker with the distribution formula (for bedtime reading, here’s a summary:
http://1.usa.gov/1ry0U9o), but inevitably, politics creeps into the process, with legislators fiercely protecting their own town’s grants. And the grants are almost never fully funded anyway, falling prey to other state financial priorities.
Statewide, fully funded or not, there’s a lot of ECS money on the table — about $2 billion these days — and the ECS formula plays out a zero-sum game: when one town gets more money, another gets less. So, the governor proposes to claw back our $3.5 million share of ECS (and those of the 27 other towns) and triage the funds to less affluent towns in the face of the budget shortfall. Fairfield, in other words, is being asked to take a hit for the team.
From the sound of things at Monday’s RTM meeting, the town won’t be taking this lying down. Neither First Selectman Michael Tetreau, Board of Finance Chairman Tom Flynn, nor Board of Education Chairman Phil Dwyer were in favor of contemplating any changes to the final version of the town’s 2016-17 budget. The budget crunch is Hartford’s problem, not Fairfield’s; the town would stick by its final version of the budget, and look to the governor and General Assembly to figure out what they’re going to do. Requests from some RTM members to speculate on where budget cuts might come from were rightly turned away.
The town attorney has determined that RTM’s budget vote slated for May 2 can be delayed. The problem is, too long a delay will bring unpleasant ripple effects; a big one, as Chairman Flynn pointed out, would be uncertainty over setting the 2016-17 mill rate.
Mr. Tetreau reported that his best information was that there is bipartisan resistance to the ECS cuts, and that it likely would not go forward. Actually, “dead on arrival” was how he put it. On the other hand, according to state Sen. Tony Hwang, who attended the meeting, there will need to be a reconciliation of three budget proposals — Democratic, Republican and Malloy’s. It’s not hard to imagine that a compromise budget may restore some, but not all, of the ECS cuts.
Setting aside for the moment disagreements over where the blame rests for the current budget crisis, and what to do about it, I admit to empathizing with Malloy’s conundrum. No one denies the existence of the shortfall, and the government’s obligation to deal with it. The money has got to come from somewhere. How does one inflict pain equitably?
On the other hand, Fairfield must advocate for its children, who deserve the best education they can reasonably have. And that takes money.
Gov. Malloy, state reps, town officials, I know you’ll do your best. How often do people thank you for your service? I’ll be happy to be watching this from the sidelines.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "As I See It" column appears periodically. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.