Schools brace as state budget storm continues

$557 million.

That’s estimated funding to be dropped from the state’s Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) grant under Governor Dannel Malloy’s resource allocation plan.  

The ECS grant “is the primary vehicle for state education funding to local and regional school districts,” said Karen Baldwin, Ridgefield’s Superintendent of Schools, in her opening school report to the Board of Education Aug. 28.

Boiled down to the local level, the figure translates to $1,101,312 in state aid that the public schools received last year.

Anticipating the ECS grant might be on the chopping block, the Board of Selectmen set aside $571,648 in extra funding to bridge the gap.

“The ECS is funding from the state that goes directly to the town to offset educational expenditures,” Baldwin said. “The Board of Education never sees this funding, it is like a revenue to the town and as such, the town anticipated this lack of state aid and made plans to account for the lack of ‘revenue.’”

Loss of revenue

How much of that revenue did the town not get?

“The shortfall in aid to the town is $529,664,” Baldwin said.

The superintendent said that for parents and students, the budget concerns would have little impact on day-to-day life at school, and that they “will continue to experience the high level of teaching and learning that is expected in our community.”

And to be fair, out of the school’s total operating budget of $93,517,544, that shortfall hardly seems to be a drop in the bucket.

But the uncertainty of the state’s finances could mean further cuts or reductions down the road — a predicament that has the education board watching the news out of Hartford warily.

State budget

Board chairwoman Frances Walton said that if the legislature passed a revised budget during the year, then the cut in state funding could change overnight.

“This could all change by Friday,” she said.

While the legislature remains locked in budget negotiations, the governor’s office cut funding for the ECS as part of a larger response to the state’s budget woes.

“As you know, these cuts are a result of the projected $1.6-billion dollar state budget deficit in (fiscal year) 2018,” Baldwin’s said, noting that the town has enacted a hiring freeze in response to the budget standoff.

The resource allocation plan essentially runs the state budget by executive order, until a new budget can be agreed upon by the state legislature.

As Walton pointed out, any new budget passed by the legislature would overrule budget constraints put in place by Malloy’s allocation plan. In the near term, those allocations take a bite out of school budgets.

Special education

Perhaps a more far-reaching consequence of the budget crisis would be if the state were to make cuts to grants which help schools balance the heavy costs of special education.

Chief among these is the special education Excess Cost Grant (ECR).

Under the ECR, the state primarily “reimburses school districts for … the reasonable costs of special education for a student who lives in the district that exceed 4.5 times the district's average per pupil expenditures for the preceding year,” according to the Office of Legislative Research.

Schools are still on the hook for the typical costs of a student who requires special education, but the grant helps level out the cost of special education students who require more resources than usual.

Baldwin said it seemed that the state will continue ECR funding despite the budget chaos in Hartford

“All indications out of the state is that special education funding remains intact and is distributed similarly to previous years,” the superintendent told The Press.