Notes From the Board Table: Do not be hasty with budget decisions
Weston held its annual town meeting this past week, and two motions were made from the floor to reduce school spending. One motion would have cut their school budget by $850,000, which is the amount their town will lose if its state education cost sharing (ECS) grant is eliminated. The other motion called for a $500,000 reduction. Both motions were defeated.
I raise this because I am concerned similar floor motions will be made during Wilton’s town meeting on Tuesday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. in the Clune Center. We need members of the community who support our schools to turn out en masse to reject attempts to reduce our budget, and to protect our investment in our schools.
By now everyone has heard that Gov. Malloy proposed completely eliminating the ECS grants for the state’s 28 “wealthiest” districts as a way to help address the state’s budget deficit. For Wilton, if this happens, it would mean the loss of roughly $1.5 million in state funding which would need to be made up via cuts or higher taxes.
And you may have seen that a small but vocal contingent in our town has been quick to call for the schools to bear the entirety of the proposed $1.5 million hit.
This is a knee-jerk reaction that does little to look at the bigger picture. Instead, I implore our fellow elected officials and town residents to recognize this situation as a “Wilton” problem that we need to address as a community and to understand that the Board of Education is already working on ways to do its part while minimizing the effect on existing programming.
First, let me explain the ECS grant. Connecticut — unlike most states — relies on property owners in each town to pay the majority of costs of operating a local school system. For many years, the state provided a flat per-pupil grant, which paid for roughly 20% of a locality’s education budget.
This all changed in the late 1970s when the State Supreme Court found the funding process to be unconstitutional, in that students in less affluent, “property-poor” towns were denied the same educational opportunities as students in wealthier towns.
The state was directed to develop a more equitable funding solution, which resulted in the ECS grant initiative we know today. Essentially, the state relies on an ECS “formula” to divvy up its annual school funding allotment, as determined by the state legislature in Hartford. According to the state Legislative Research Office, “the formula is intended to equalize state education funding by taking into account a town’s wealth and ability to raise property taxes to pay for education. Poor towns receive more aid per student; affluent towns receive less aid per student.”
Although widely criticized and chronically under-funded, the ECS remains the primary venue through which the state extends education funding to cities and towns.
In Wilton, ECS funds are not discussed within the Board of Education. This money goes directly to the town, and according to Lynne Vanderslice these funds are used only to reduce the tax burden of the school budget on all taxpayers. In the town’s financial statement they are listed under the State and Federal Grants line item and then described in a footnote. As such, the Board of Education does not factor ECS funds into its budget. (We do though, pay close attention to the “excess cost grant [ECG],” which reimburses a portion of our special education costs, but to be clear, the ECG is entirely separate from the ECS and the similarity in names adds to the confusion.)
First Selectman Vanderslice and Board of Finance Chairman Jeff Rutishauser have spent a considerable amount of time talking with elected officials in neighboring towns that are also slated to have their ECS funds eliminated. Of those towns that have addressed the issue, some are taking a “wait and see” approach, while others are relying on a combination of town reserves along with school and town spending reductions to address what they think might happen.
I believe our town’s most prudent choice is a combination of the two. Let’s wait and see what the governor approves before guessing at the outcome and then make informed decisions as a collective town team, not as individual boards. I am well aware that further cuts to the education budget — beyond the $400,000 in cuts already mandated by the Board of Finance — will probably be required. The Board of Education began working on the most prudent way to address further cuts even before the Board of Finance learned of the governor’s proposal. But asking the schools to absorb the entirety of a possible shortfall — before we even know the outcome — seems illogical and irresponsible to me. We must not put our schools in danger when our collective thinking can come up with a better alternative.
The May 3 town meeting in the Clune Center at 7:30 p.m. will certainly be lively. I truly hope to see you there.