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Budget Crisis Prompts Malloy To Weigh A Shift In Education Aid

With the start of a new academic year approaching and lawmakers unable to agree on a state budget, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is taking steps to craft a new executive order that could have far-reaching ramifications for Connecticut’s schools and how much financial aid they receive.

Malloy is considering using executive authority to shift aid from wealthier school districts to poorer ones. “We will reevaluate how we’ll be distributing aid to communities in the coming weeks to make sure we honor our constitutional requirement for education in the state of Connecticut,’’ Malloy said.

“That may mean that some districts will have to receive less money so that other districts will receive an appropriate amount of money that would honor the constitutional requirement,’’ the Democratic governor said Tuesday during a visit to a school in Meriden to tout gains in SAT scores.

Connecticut has long struggled with how to fund public education, with Malloy and the legislature offering up different strategies. Earlier this year, Malloy proposed shifting teacher pension costs, now born by state government, to cities and towns. In exchange, he offered them the option to tax land owned by hospitals.

Malloy’s proposal to channel more money to the 30 lowest-performing school systems, known as Alliance Districts, drew criticism from a top Republican on the legislature's education committee. Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton said Malloy’s approach is “creating a class warfare issue.”

Boucher said she and other Republicans have backed funneling more state education money to the poorest districts in the past. But she said shifting funds now would be devastating to communities.

“This is going to further erode education in so many of our towns," Boucher said. “We all understand there are big barriers to success and we all want those [Alliance] school districts to succeed, but there’s a tipping point and I think that has been reached now.’’

Lawmakers in a divided legislature have been unable to pass a budget and close a deficit that’s estimated to top $5 billion over the next two years. Malloy is running the state through executive order, a limited budgetary tool that allows him to cut certain line items and shift funds but not raise new revenue.

The state generally doesn't distribute the first round of education cost sharing grants — the main way the state funds local education programs — until around Oct. 25. But with classes in most districts set to begin by the end of the month, school officials are making hiring decisions, ordering supplies and developing programs now. The uncertainty over funding is creating turmoil, said Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

“Over the last two days … I have heard from many superintendents asking what they could possibly do to move this impasse forward,’’ Rabinowitz said. “This is creating tremendous havoc in many school districts.’’

Schools across the state are delaying hiring non-tenured teachers, freezing other positions, putting off repairs and deferring the purchases of supplies needed for the upcoming school year. Last week, school officials in Torrington decided to delay the opening of school by three to five days to conserve cash.

As a former superintendent of Bridgeport schools, Rabinowitz said she is keenly aware of the needs of the state’s Alliance Districts. “They serve our most vulnerable children,’’ she said.

But further budget cuts would also be harmful to the non-Alliance Districts, she said. “If your district is a suburban district and you’re being cut by $10 million, that’s incredibly difficult,’’ she said. “The not knowing is really causing an educational crisis across the state.’’

Malloy said Tuesday he plans to “reevaluate that lack of progress” on the budget in the coming weeks. “I had hoped that this would be resolved by now or certainly would be resolved in the month of August if not the first few weeks of September,'’ he said. “If this is going to drag on, then quite frankly some of those assumptions would have to be adjusted to reflect the constitutional requirement with respect to public education.’’


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