HARTFORD – Legislators, school officials, students and parents are calling for the state to use a portion of its surplus to increase funding to schools as the federal coronavirus funding runs out, but legislative leaders warn that this decision may come at the expense of other budgetary requests.
In 2017, legislators made an agreement to readjust the state formula for funding public schools, increasing funding for certain districts and decreasing funding for others. The formula was scheduled to be rolled out gradually over the course of 10 years. The current proposal will speed up the rollout so that schools receiving an increase in their state funding will be fully funded by the year 2025.
According to calculations based on a similar bill last year, the cost will be an additional $275 million in the 2025 budget.
State Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, the Speaker of the House, said that fully funding the school districts needed to be more than a one-time commitment — and that making the decision to spend more money on education might mean sacrificing other funding requests.
“If you want to fully fund [education], I’m going to ask you to support something else: making sure we don’t spend every dollar of our surplus now. Make sure the rainy day fund is 18% so that when we have the dips, we have the money to cover those deficits without cutting [education] funding,” said Ritter.
Ritter said that it was important to maintain “fiscal discipline and fiscal stability” even when increasing the funding.
“You have been willing to say ‘This is my budget priority.’ We have a spending cap in this state. We can’t spend a trillion dollars. So if we’re standing here today — we do have to make tough choices in a budget. This is the hard choice. This is the large piece of funding that we have to do.”
He also called for additional oversight of the funding.
“Does it make sure that we pay paraeducators more? Does it raise teachers salaries in Hartford so they’re not always attracted to go to another community that can pay $20,000 more? Does it reach the classroom?” said Ritter.
In a statement after the press conference, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said the request for more education funding needed to be considered alongside other priorities for the state.
“It’s important that we remember decisions about education funding and tackling all funding formulas can’t occur in a vacuum. It’s an important section of the budgetary puzzle that has a multitude of other pieces—from more resources to nonprofits and delivering much-needed tax relief, to assisting nursing homes and continuing to pay down the state’s unfunded obligations,” said Candelora in the statement.
State Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, chair of the Education Committee, said that increasing the funding in 2025 was critical because the federal coronavirus relief funding was set to expire that year – meaning that school districts would have to decide between increasing their local budgets or eliminating staff and other programs that had been put in place after the pandemic.
“There is a very difficult conversation that is on the horizon when that money goes away,” said Currey. “[The district is] using that one time infusion for support staff, for additional resources, for everything that already should have been in their classrooms, but we’re not because of funding issues. So [this bill] is going to allow them to continue using those same supports and mechanisms to ensure that our children are uplifted and provided with that quality experience that they deserve.”
Tyron Harris, a member of the East Hartford Board of Education, said that East Hartford was using about $3.4 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to pay for the salaries of about 50 staff members, from custodians to administrators. Joseph Macary, the superintendent of Vernon Public Schools, said the money would help pay for additional tutors and counselors and more interventions for English Language Arts and math.
A wide variety of district administrators came out in support of the bill, some claiming to have been underfunded by the state for years. Scott Nicholson, superintendent of schools in Ellington, said the district had been underfunded for nearly two decades, and Ansonia mayor David Casetti said that Ansonia had been underfunded by an average of $7 million annually for the last decade.
Matthew Conway, superintendent of schools in Derby, said that the additional state funding would allow them to avoid increasing taxes in a distressed municipality.
“The additional local taxes for many families, means less food on the table for a child, means turning the heat off, means another move because they can no longer afford the rent. As you know, you can’t maintain last year’s services without an increase in funding. But we cannot place that burden on our struggling families. So we are faced with the dilemma of reducing support, reducing opportunities and reducing basic educational needs for our kids because we cannot afford the year over year increase in cost,” wrote Conway.
According to numbers calculated based on 2022 data, Ellington would receive an additional $530,000 in state funding in 2025 under this proposal. Vernon would receive an additional $1.6 million, Derby would receive an additional $788,000, Ansonia would receive an extra $1.76 million and East Hartford would receive an additional $8.9 million.
The bill also changes the formula for magnet schools, technical schools and vocational agriculture schools by factoring in the number of students who come from low-income households, speak a language other than English and are in special education.
Multiple students from magnet schools and the vocational agriculture schools also spoke about the value of their programs.
“Even though our program is one of the best, if not the best, there are plenty of other schools working with the [Future Farmers of America] that don’t have enough funding to have animals,” said Sage Samuelson, who attends Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury, which has an agricultural program. “Our school has cows and all the animals that you can think of, but there are other schools in CT that have only one or two animals, and they are small ones. I really think that this bill is super important to help bring forward … different programs that help students reach their full potential with jobs that they want in the future that are not necessarily ‘normal’ per se.”
One concern that arose during the public hearing was the issue of “double funding” — that for students who attend magnet schools, technical schools and vocational agricultural schools, the state pays both the school that the student attends and the regular public school in the district.
“It still seems like there’s an empty seat that we’re paying for and the student’s not there,” said State Rep. Anne Dauphinais, R-Killingly.
Lisa Hammersley, executive director of the School and State Finance Project, said that the local districts are still responsible for transportation and special education costs even if the students attend a non-traditional public school. She said that the loss of this dual funding would mean a drop in $100 million for traditional public schools, and would largely come from already underfunded communities, like Avon, Southington and Farmington.
Others said they felt the bill did not go far enough in scrutinizing the underlying funding formula.
State Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, said she felt the formula needed to be redone to take into account the needs of rural districts like the ones she represents, some of whom are slated to see a decrease in state funds. She said that one of her towns has one of the lowest per-pupil costs but is losing $330,000 annually under the current formula.
Shelleye Davis, the president of the Paraeducators Union, said she was concerned about the foundation amount, which she said had not been adjusted. She also said she wanted more oversight to make sure the funds were actually going toward the classrooms.
Bobbi Brown, the chair of the Board of Education in Bridgeport, said the formula would actually widen funding inequities in Bridgeport.
“I strongly believe that Bridgeport is in need of more,” said Brown.
Under the current formula, Bridgeport would receive an additional $3.2 million in state aid.
State Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, said he expected that changes in population and poverty counts in Bridgeport for the year 2023 would result in more funding for the city. He said that the formula wasn’t perfect, but that it was still a large step forward.
“We do need to take progress where it is, and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Felipe.
Felipe said that he recently went to visit schools in Bridgeport and that they were nearly the same as when he attended them 20 years ago.
“As a Bridgeport Public School student, I went from school to school. Some schools with no cafeteria, some with no gymnasium. Rundown bathrooms, missing windows, you name it. Breezes coming through in the winter that made you feel like you needed two coats,” said Felipe.
In contrast, he said, the more affluent districts nearby, like Fairfield, had smaller class sizes, more support and better facilities.
“They have amenities that have been built, state-of-the-art gymnasium, state-of-the-art lunchroom, state-of-the-art fields,” said Felipe. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Fairfield students do not deserve these things. They deserve all of these things and more. But as a young Latino from the city of Bridgeport, so did I.”