View from Glen Hill: School funding, here and elsewhere

A recent education decision by Hartford Superior Court is an important one for all of us even though its highly significant consequences are not likely to be felt for some years. The decision came after a decade of trial-level work and extensive testimony by many educators and others from across our state in agonizing specifics about the glaring extremes in Connecticut schools’ performance.

The decision notes that while many of our schools statewide are performing very well (some among the top in the nation, like our own Wilton school system), the fact is that for some school districts the opposite is true: they are at the very bottom of the educational adequacy spectrum nationwide. In fact, the superintendent of Bridgeport schools testified that a “functionally illiterate person could get a Bridgeport high school diploma.” Based on this kind of evidence, the court found that “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities.”

Our state’s attorney general has announced that the state is appealing this decision not as to its conclusion concerning gross educational disparities but rather to contest the court’s right to establish the system by which the necessary steps to educational adequacy for all students will be financed and implemented. The state will urge upon the Connecticut Supreme Court, during its recently announced expedited appeal of this case, that the matter of financing is a legislative one that should not be usurped by the courts.

Whatever the final decision is on who establishes the funding methodology, the key question is this: How will our state address meeting the need? While the disparities in educational adequacy are glaring, the method for fixing the situation is far from clear. For example, will the state undertake the burden of equalizing educational funding itself? If so, how will it accomplish the funding of those additional educational expenses: by cutting back other state budget lines or by expanding deficits? Or will it decide to levy upon some of the real and personal property tax revenues (or to levy upon their underlying sources) to, in effect, take from one municipality and give to another? The fundamental challenge in all of this is to improve the schools clearly in desperate need of it without dropping down the other, well-performing schools in the process.

If the appellate court’s decision leaves funding decisions entirely to the legislature as seems likely, those funding decisions are likely to be far in the future as the legislature wrestles over how to make educational adequacy a reality across our state. Meanwhile, we need to assure that our Wilton schools remain as strong as possible to withstand whatever the long-term future may hold. On the local scene, at the annual town meeting time this past May, the Board of Education and the Board of Finance agreed to confer starting right then on the coming year’s school budget so that our town would not have another cliffhanging budget-time next spring. So what has happened since this past May in furtherance of that objective? Apparently there have been a number of discussions but unfortunately not much agreement.

The BOF recently presented its pronouncement as to what the bogey (Budget Obligations Governing Execution Year) should be for this coming fiscal year’s budget, and the BOE does not agree with the BOF’s school-budget reduction objective. So it sadly sounds like another year of business as usual in terms of last-minute budget battles, though maybe we can hope that the two boards’ discussions will proceed vigorously even now, not be deferred until the last minute (again). The BOF’s elimination of the state-subsidy line item in creating its bogey for this coming year seems misplaced given how long the educational adequacy funding issue is likely to take to be resolved. Moreover, no account seems to have been taken of the $900,000 in funds that were bonded but are not needed because of the way the Comstock rebuild came in under budget. Those funds might usefully be applied to further reduce the Miller-Driscoll rebuild bonding, which has already been much reduced by the very successful construction-bidding results.

For towns like ours, educational excellence is the prime driver of real property values and other indicia of economic health; it’s why families with young kids want to come here. We have every interest as a town in seeing that we do all that we need to assure that our schools’ excellence continues. Depending upon what the appellate court decides, that issue may eventually become a lot more complicated for all of us.