ECS, special education aid, teacher pensions among possible cuts and costs for public schools
FAIRFIELD — Fairfield is at risk of losing millions in state aid earmarked for its public schools, as laid out in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget last week.
The $40.5 billion state budget would take effect next fiscal year and hit Fairfield with a $7.7 million net loss. Between cuts and changed formulas and cost burdens, the town is estimating it could need to make up about $14.2 million expected from state sources.
Among education aid contributing to the decline is a loss of all Education Cost Sharing funds and a proposed change in how special education aid is distributed, also triggering a decline. Malloy also proposed shifting a portion of teachers’ retirement payments from the state to towns and cities, an expense that would amount to more than $9 million for Fairfield annually.
“It’s daunting,” said Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones. “The loss in revenue is a tremendous challenge.”
Speaking to the state legislature Feb. 8, Malloy characterized the changes in aid as an effort to help Connecticut’s struggling city schools through sacrifices from wealthier towns. Along with many of its wealthy neighbors, Fairfield would be among 138 towns and cities facing net losses in state aid, while Bridgeport would be among the minority of locales receiving a boost.
At a recent meeting of school superintendents discussing proposed changes, Jones described discussions about whether communities potentially facing millions in state aid cuts could sustain arts or sports programs.
“Everything is at risk,” she said. “Something must change if you have reductions in revenue of that magnitude. Is it class size? Is it programs?”
If the cuts hold, she added, addressing them will require input from community members and a “deep, methodical” thought process to maintain the quality and well-roundedness of the education the town offers.
“I hope there will be a lot of work in Hartford and listening to communities like Fairfield who are expressing the devastation that a budget like this would have in our local communities,” Jones said, “especially when we’re talking about the educational quality for all children.”
The town is a “long way” from sorting out whether cuts to education aid would impact the public schools’ budget directly, First Selectman Michael Tetreau said. The losses could be recouped through other town budget cuts or a tax increase to boost revenue.
The Board of Education’s budget currently factors in $3,357,496 in Special Education Excess Cost Provision based on average revenue from the previous state method for helping district with special education costs for students that far exceed their average per student spending.
The new proposed grant — expected $2,140,179 for Fairfield next school year — would no longer go directly to the school district but instead to the town, a change in allocation method and more than $1 million reduction. The change is the only cut that would directly hit the Board of Education’s revenue, rather than funds flowing through the town.
Budgeting for the 2015-16 school year, Fairfield was still counting on more than $3.5 million each year in Education Cost Sharing aid, a formula-driven distribution of funds that account for town wealth and ability to raise property taxes to fund schools.
The way the funding — an attempt at equalization — is distributed meant cuts for Fairfield last year after its budget was set and again during the current school year. But now, Fairfield will get no ECS funding whatsoever, a change district leadership and board members had recently been cautiously warning could be on the horizon.
But shifting a portion of the burden for teacher pension costs to towns — toting a projected $9.2 million price tag for next fiscal year and a nearly $9.5 million cost the following year — is one of the most frightening numbers, according to Jones.
“Just that retirement number alone, that’s the equivalent of about 122 teacher salaries,” she said, offering a point of comparison. Staffing costs, she emphasized, make up the largest portion of school budgets by far.
The proposed budget still likely in store for months of review and debate, Tetreau said the town will need to wait and see what the final budget looks like and adjustments for education spending would be more likely next year than during the current budget process.
Currently complicating the town budgeting process is lack of definition in Malloy’s proposal and timing, Tetreau added. Fairfield, like many towns in the state, must have its budget finalized by the beginning of April, ahead of state deadlines.
“We won’t have answers from the state,” Tetreau said. “The timing is a serious and very significant problem that makes it impossible for the towns to plan accurately and, frankly, it’s unfair to all taxpayers (throughout the state).”
He called on the legislature to work together to “get us those numbers” by March. The legislature’s session expires at 12:01 a.m. June 8. Until then, lawmakers can work to reach consensus on the two-year budget.
“We have a tremendous amount of work to do, I think at the state and local level,” Jones said. “It’s still early so I’m going to remain optimistic that we’re going to work together as a community to solve a challenging budget for the 2017-18 school year.”
After receiving a final amount allocated for its 2017-18 school year budget in several months, the Board of Education may need to make cuts. If below its requested $168.7 million, the board will need to trim what Jones and board members have characterized as an already “lean” budget.