Simsbury and 'Wealthy' Towns Fear Impact of Reform Ruling

While Judge Thomas Moukawsher's ruling orders the state to more fairly fund education, critics say this could leave taxpayers in wealthy, high-achieving communities like Simsbury paying the bill.

"It's unfair to Simsbury because it penalizes us for our excellence," Rep. John Hampton, D-16th District, said Thursday. "We don't have too much time to remedy the situation. I am going to be fiercely aggressive in not only maintaining our funding, but making sure we get more."

Hampton said he is happy to work on a solution to equitable education funding -- but would "vigorously protect" and push for better funding for his local schools.

In a lengthy and strongly worded decision ordering an overhaul of public education in Connecticut, Judge Moukawsher -- a former state legislator -- painted a grim portrait of "irrational education policy" in the state that appears to ignore the crushing needs of urban children while students in wealthy districts flourish.

To illustrate, the judge pointed to wealthier communities such as Simsbury that profit from generous state aid, even as a state school funding formula is supposed to address the needs of poor and needy children.

Moukawsher's ruling ordered the state to come up with a new funding formula for public schools within 180 days. Judge Moukawsher ruled that the current policy "allows rich towns to raid money desperately needed by poor towns."

"The state knows there couldn't be a worse time to move education money from struggling poor districts to rich districts," the ruling states. "But the state did it anyway in May 2016 when, in the name of austerity, it amended the 2016-2017 fiscal year budget."

Under these changes, education aid to the states poorest districts — excluding Danbury and Stamford — was cut by more than $5.3 million, the ruling stated. Meanwhile, the state provided additional education funding for other "comparatively wealthy towns" totaling more than $5.1 million.

Locally, Simsbury received close to $300,000, West Hartford received $1.4 million and Glastonbury received about $260,000, according to Judge Moukawsher. At the same time, aid to Hartford was cut by about $1 million, while New Britain and East Hartford saw cuts around the $240,000 mark.

Moukawsher pointed out that $5 million in cuts is crucial for the 14 poorer cities listed in the ruling.

"At $85,000 a head that represents around 59 full-time teaching positions at a time when poor cities without substantial tax bases are struggling with some of the nation's neediest students," according to the ruling.

Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools Superintendents, warned against this "Robin Hood-style" approach to education funding, and said it may encourage wealthier towns to halt support of statewide education initiatives.

"Even though you are wealthy doesn't mean you don't need the money," Cirasuolo said.

Like many communities around Connecticut, Simsbury struggled through its budget process this because of worry over potential state budget cuts.

The town's referendum had to be postponed because its board of finance hoped that more information would be available about the level of state funding the town would receive before the vote was taken. In total, the net impact of the state funding cuts on the town was $315,000.

In June, the town approved a $94.07 million budget for 2016-17, represents a 2.23 percent spending increase. First Selectman Lisa Heavner had initially recommended a 3.75 percent budget increase, or $711,299, for 2016-17.

Heavner said she understands Moukawsher's position, and there is "no question" that everyone in the state deserves a good education.

She said she is unsure how the ruling will affect the town, but she said her office will continue to monitor the outcomes of the decision.

"Any loss of revenue has an impact to the town," Heavner said. "It's clear that something needs to be done with the way we fund education in the state of Connecticut. There is a huge over-reliance on property tax."

Simsbury Finance Director Sean Kimball said that if the town's funding was cut by the $288,000 listed in the ruling — and if no expenses were cut from the budget — the mill rate would increase by 14 cents to 37.26 mills, or $37.26 for each $1,000 of assessed property value. This is equal to about a .38 percent tax increase, he said.

Thus, for a home with an assessed property value of $200,000, it would mean a $28 increase in property taxes.

Hampton said Simsbury's per pupil funding is already low, and the formula for state funding has been flawed for a long time.

"The court is trying to impose a one-size-fits-all mandate and it erodes our flexibility and penalizes many of Connecticut's schools," he said.

State Sen. Kevin Witkos, who represents Simsbury, said it is premature to discuss whether the town's funding would be cut, and said he would never vote for something that would "catch a municipality by surprise" mid-way through the year.

"I wouldn't want people to think, 'Oh, now they are going to cut $280,000,'" he said. "I don't see that on the horizon. I do see us looking at how the dollars are spent."

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