No state budget? Schools, town carry on
The long-festering state budget stalemate has some Connecticut school districts considering drastic steps — staff cuts, delaying the start of school — but Ridgefield did not expect much state money.
“The district continues to move forward as planned for the 2017-18 school year focusing on our targeted initiatives in professional learning, technology and special education,” Superintendent Karen Baldwin said Tuesday, Aug. 15.
“We are monitoring the status of the state budget and the governor’s executive order effective July 1st, and at this moment we have not had to adjust our plans or expenditures.”
The Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents said in an Aug. 2 statement that uncertainty about the state budget had schools delaying the rehiring of non-tenured teachers and, sometimes, losing them as a result. One district has 50 teachers in limbo, the association said, another is delaying the start of school a week, and others put off repairs usually done over the summer.
Ridgefield anticipated reduced education funding from the state, First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.
The $142-million town and school budget 2017-18 anticipates about $1,310,000 in “intergovernmental” revenue — money from various state programs — down 53% from $2,786,000 the previous year.
“We anticipated the state making these cuts,” Marconi said.
Town officials figured the state would reduce money for high-performing schools in affluent towns and funnel it to troubled schools in poorer communities. They correctly anticipated Ridgefield’s Educational Cost Sharing or “ECS” money, which had been running about $2 million a year, would be zeroed out.
“My biggest concern about the budget doesn’t so much lie in the Educational Cost Sharing, or any of the the grants. My 800-pound gorilla is the teachers’ retirement,” Marconi said. “...That could be bigger than anything that’s being discussed in terms of economic impact.”
That proposal, floated by Gov. Dannel Malloy, would have municipalities share part of the state’s cost for teachers’ pensions.
“The governor originally proposed the municipalities be responsible for 30% of the teachers’ retirement. That percentage would result in Ridgefield having to make a payment of $4.4 million per year,” Marconi said. “...That decision would have serious consequences.”
Even if Malloy’s 30% proposal isn’t adopted, a smaller percentage could be a foot in the door for a municipal contribution that would grow over time.
“Some of the rumors have been, in terms of legislators speculating, it would be difficult for them to pass such an onerous obligation on to the municipalities, but maybe they’ll start with a smaller percentage,” Marconi said.
In Hartford, politicians are haggling over budget proposals following acceptance by state unions of a deal expected to save $1.57 billion over the state’s next two-year budget cycle, while guaranteeing employees benefits through 2027.
Meanwhile, the Malloy administration is gathering information on town finances — leaving Marconi suspicious.
Municipalities received a letter from Secretary Ben Barnes of the Office of Policy and Management, seeking extensive financial information. A letter from Malloy asked Barnes for an analysis of “municipal aid, local tax levels, expenditure trends, fund balances, and any other criteria that could better inform our decisions.”
The information sought include historical data and current conditions.
“In recent years, I have made it a priority to protect aid to municipalities. In contrast, we have made drastic changes to how we fund other areas of state government — both in total funding and in our rationale for how limited dollars are allocated,” Malloy’s letter reads.
‘Robin Hood’ funding
With Malloy gathering financial information on towns and cities across the state, it appears he plans to involve them in repair of the state’s financial problems, whether through reduced state assistance to municipalities — or selected towns — by sharing teacher pension costs, or some other strategy.
Marconi expects something in keeping with state’s history of ‘Robin Hood’ funding formulas that seek to lessen the financial imbalance between schools in wealthier suburbs and those poorer cities and rural communities.
“They’re going to assess, or decrease your funding, based on your ability to pay,” he said.
Marconi continues to talk of legal action — possibly led by the Council of Small Towns (COST) — if the state does push teachers’ pensions costs onto towns and cities.
There’s grounds, he believes, for arguing towns and cities aren’t responsible for paying pensions they didn’t negotiate.
“COST would be the primary organization to lead a legal objection to the possibility of the teachers’ retirement cost being passed on to municipalities,” he said, “when in fact a municipality has never, since 1939, held a seat in any bargaining situation, whatsoever.”