Boucher, school board talk budget problems

Connecticut is in serious financial trouble.

That was the message state Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26) delivered to the Board of Education at its Jan. 8 meeting.

“In 2015 to 2016, Connecticut lost 20,000 more people than it brought in,” she said.

Far from just retirees, she said, those are people moving away from the state from every demographic — and a good number of them are choosing to move right next door to New York state.

“Many of us who have lived here 10, 20, 30 years, or in my case, longer — we’ve seen a tremendous drop in the equity of our home. And, of course, property taxes going up as well,” she said.

A Republican-sponsored budget that was proposed over the summer would have begun some of the needed structural changes, she said, but Gov. Dannel Malloy vetoed the bill.

Board Chairwoman Fran Walton interjected to say that many members of the Ridgefield Board of Education had been “less than enamored” with some aspects of the Republican-proposed budget — particularly with reforms that would have stripped local school boards of some of their autonomy.

“I hear you saying a lot of things, and I still don’t understand how it’s going to get to be funded properly without holding over towns and districts who’ve managed their businesses in a very fiscally conservative manner,” Walton said.

In particular, she voiced her concern that local governments would be held partially responsible for pension costs negotiated and “mismanaged” at the state level, or else the state would withdraw funding for state aid programs that help level the costs of education.

“Ridgefield does not get that much money from the state. The thing we get money for is excess cost reimbursement for special education,” Walton said. “So I really hope that the Education Committee continues to fund that, so that it is equitable for all students across Connecticut who have special needs.”

Boucher agreed.

“You can be assured that the Education Committee will do that, on both sides of the aisle,” she said.

‘Good news’

Walton also pointed out that a recent demographer’s report suggested that about 48% of new kindergarten students were part of families that migrated into the district with the purchase of a new home, rather than through established families giving birth to new children in town.

“We’re perhaps not following the same trend as Wilton, because I think Wilton’s been having a faster decline in enrollment than we have,” said Walton.

“There are many towns that are feeling that decline,” Boucher responded. “So this is good news for Ridgefield.”

Boom times

Boucher said that while the rest of the region is showing economic growth, Connecticut has remained stagnant.

“The rest of the country is undergoing a great economic boom at this time — even our neighboring states,” she added. In Connecticut, only about 70% of the jobs lost are coming back, she said, while Massachusetts has recovered 300% of its lost jobs.

Education in Connecticut is also lagging compared to Massachusetts, Boucher added. She laid part of the blame on the state’s collective bargaining rules.

“Massachusetts does not have collective bargaining for its principals — certainly we don’t for our superintendents, that’s an executive position. But in Massachusetts, principals are management. They’re like a superintendent — they are hired or fired at the will of the school system.”

And while local boards and teachers have largely moved away from defined benefit plans, the state employee group — and particularly the governor’s office — has been unwilling to follow suit, Boucher said.

“You have made changes that the state or the governor is unwilling to make,” she said. “For example, health care — many of our school districts have health savings accounts. Pension funds — many have converted from defined benefit plans to hybrids or defined contribution plans. That has saved a great deal of money.”

She again circled back to state funding for education.

“When the state decides to underfund towns and schools, then the pressure on property tax increases is severe, and — as you said, and I’ve made that argument time and again — you are punishing the towns that have done the responsible thing,” Boucher said.