IN THE REGION — Between 2007 and 2017, the total public primary and secondary school enrollment in Connecticut dropped by 46,110 students, a decline of 8 percent. Essex, Deep River and Old Saybrook all have seen much greater losses with 32, 16 and 12 percent respectively.
None of these declines were previously considered drastic enough to merit an exemption from the state Minimum Budget Requirement (MBR) – a law that prohibits most school districts in Connecticut from spending less on education than in the previous fiscal year.
Language included in the recently passed state budget may change this. For the first time since the budget requirement was enacted, school districts are allowed to consider a lookback period of five years instead of the previous one year. Originally known as the Minimum Expenditure Requirement, the MBR has been in place since 1975.
Previously, a school district would need to experience a significant decrease in enrollment over one calendar year — calculated by a formula that considers the number of students eligible for the national school lunch program — to receive an exemption based on population decline.
“The MBR is very frustrating. Towns are seeing significant declines in enrollments and are struggling to maintain property tax levels,” said Betsy Gara, the executive director for the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST). “Every town that tries to lower the education budget bumps up against this.”
The Minimum Budget Requirement was established to prevent towns from cutting local education funding to the extent that it would harm the quality of education in a school district, according to the State Department of Education. The MBR is also meant to prevent towns from redirecting education funding from state cost-sharing grants for non-educational purposes.
The reality for many small towns in southeastern Connecticut, is that with 70 to 85 percent of the budget spent on education, the MBR makes it extremely difficult for towns to find cost savings that could help prevent raising property taxes.
“Under current state law, towns and cities are prohibited from budgeting less for education than … in the previous fiscal year unless [they] can demonstrate specific changes within [a] school district leading to an exception to the MBR,” according to Peter Yazbak, spokesperson for the State Department of Education. “Those changes and exceptions include reduced student enrollment; new and documentable savings through increased efficiencies or regional collaboration; and, the termination of operations and closure of a school or schools due to declining enrollment.”
For years, MBR has made small towns feel like their hands are tied.
“Towns have worked really hard to reduce costs and then they are sent a letter from the State Department of Education that if they don’t increase their education budget then they will receive a fine,” Gara said.
In Deep River, for example, the town wanted to reduce the education budget to account for a teacher retirement and a population decline that meant the position unnecessary. Under the previous formula used by the State Department of Education, however, this population decline within the mandated one-year window was judged not significant. Faced with losing education cost-sharing grants for two years, Deep River was forced to return the education budget to its prior level.
Special exemptions from the MBR are granted to all schools performing in the top 10 percent on the Connecticut State Department of Education’s accountability index based off statewide testing, towns that recently joined a regional school district, and towns with reduced state funding. Alliance districts – the bottom 33 performing cities and towns in the state – cannot qualify for an exemption.
An incentive for regionalizing schools
The new budget provides more incentives – in terms of exemptions from MBR – for towns that are willing to regionalize.
These incentives echo Governor Ned Lamont’s original proposals for regionalizing school districts across Connecticut. A bill championed by State Sen. Norm Needleman, and passed by the legislature, for example, requires the State Department of Education to study the efficacy of having local education agencies that would allow for regional cooperation to maximize cost savings.
“We need to figure out better ways to incentivize towns to work together,” Needleman said. “This will make it easier to regionalize things that schools want to without being classified as a regional district. It gives us the statutory leeway to find the most efficient way of working.”
Needleman’s home district is an example of where this statutory leeway might be most helpful. Essex, Deep River and Chester have separate school districts for the elementary schools, but share Region 4 for middle school and high school.
“Currently we can’t move someone from Chester to Essex elementary school without firing them and rehiring them,” Needleman said. “Local education agencies would give you a vehicle other than regionalization to share services.”
Most towns are already working to reduce costs through sharing services, like electricity contracts and health insurance collaboratives, said Ian Neviaser, superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme Schools, a regionalized district which also shares services with some nearby districts.