Responding to an outcry over Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's plan to provide more money for poor districts and to slash state assistance for wealthier schools, legislators took up a proposal that largely preserves the existing funding formula for local education.
"I'm doing my best right now to help ensure that school systems that have been calling, emailing, faxing, inundating my home with letters are able to get through the next couple of years doing a good job," said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, co-chairman of the education committee, "and not feeling that key funding is being yanked away from them and making it impossible for them to accomplish their mission."
School districts across the state have been complaining that Malloy's plan will force them to cut services, eliminate programs and lay off teachers. West Hartford, for example, said last week it was considering eliminating more than 200 teaching positions.
Legislators held a hearing Monday on a new proposal that would revamp the education cost sharing formula so that if enrollment declines, state funding would decrease. The proposal, which covers the next two years, also calls for a study to determine how much it costs to adequately educate students.
The plan proposed by the education committee is in many ways an answer to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposal released in February that would dramatically shift state education funding from wealthier districts to poorer ones.
Malloy also proposed moving the state's funding for special education out of the education cost sharing calculation, instead making it a stand-alone grant, and he has proposed having cities and towns contribute a third of the cost of local teachers pensions — $400 million.
Rep. Gail Lavielle R-Wilton, said the committee's bill is "very similar to what we have now with minor adjustments. ... If we didn't do anything, this is better than the governor's proposal, but I still think that relooking at this formula and reworking it is something that we should do ... instead of taking a very long time doing a cost adequacy study."
She said she expects the bill will evolve significantly in the coming weeks.
Sen. Gayle Slossberg, co-chairwoman of the education committee, said she still has a "a lot of questions and concerns about this iteration [of the ECS formula] and many others. We are working through some very complicated issues and I don't think we are there yet, but these are all reasonable questions to be asking."
Under the current ECS formula, Slossberg explained, the grants for cities and towns range from 140 percent of what the formula would dictate to about 50 percent.
She said this is partly because for years, cities and towns were "held harmless" even if enrollment dropped.
In effect, she said, the state told those cities and towns, "We don't care if you've lost a thousand students. We're not going to give you any less than what you got last year."
The proposed approach would recalculate the grants based on the actual enrollment. Fleischmann said the result is an extra $18 million that would be distributed to the cities and towns that are getting a much smaller percentage of what they should be getting.
"It's a progressive redistribution to assist those towns" that have been underfunded, Fleischmann said.
Katie Roy, the director and founder of the Connecticut School Finance Project, told the committee that "rather than addressing the fundamental flaws in Connecticut's school finance system, [the proposed bill] would continue the practice of funding Connecticut's public school based on patchwork policies, inconsistent fixes and block grants, which are based on historical precedent, rather than enrollment, student learning needs, and community wealth, for another two years."
"For far too long," Roy said, "Connecticut has tinkered around the edges of fixing our state's school finance system, rather than addressing these problems head on."
Under the education committee's proposal, West Hartford would receive $22.1 million next year, $3.59 million more than the governor's proposal of $18.5 million, according to an analysis done by the Connecticut School Finance Project.
The school finance project said Hartford would get $201.03 million under the education committee proposal — $20.8 million less than the $221.8 million in the governor's proposal.
While under the governor's proposal, Greenwich, Westport, Wilton and other towns were zeroed out, the education committee's proposal would not zero out any districts, according to the school finance project analysis.
Under the committee's proposal, the finance project said 113 districts would see increases over what they received this year.
Representatives from Norwalk who attended the hearing complained that the proposal would not result in an increase for that city.
Marc D'Amelio, president of the Norwalk High School Parent's Club PTA, submitted testimonysaying that bill "will do very little in the way of providing Norwalk with more equitable funding."
He said he'd like to see a bill that represents "real change" in the formula.
Jim Finley, spokesman for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, said best part of the bill was its requirement that a study be done of how much it costs to adequately educate students.
A statement from the group called the proposed bill "transitional while we await the results of the adequacy cost study," and said it is preferable to the "catastrophic changes proposed by the governor."
Almost a dozen years ago, the coalition filed suit against the state charging that it was not adequately funding education for all students. In September, Hartford Superior Court Judge Moukawsher issued a dramatic ruling, stating that the state's education cost sharing formula is not working and ordering that the state replace that formula. The state has appealed that ruling.
"An education adequacy cost study is the necessary first step toward developing a rational, effective and constitutional education funding and finance system," the coalition's statement said.