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By Kim Becker
Governor Malloy, in an effort to revive the sinking teachers’ pension fund, has proposed that school districts statewide contribute $400 million to the State. Granby’s share amounts to $1.5 million plus the loss of $224,000 from other grants. The board of finance reacted to this news by demanding that the boards of selectmen and education keep their budgets flat, resulting in a 3 percent mill rate increase. If the governor’s proposal is adopted and the boards receive budget increases, the mill rate could increase as much as 7 percent.
Superintendent Alan Addley and the Board of Education expressed dismay at the proposal and the BOF’s reaction. Addley made it clear that with contractual and legal obligations the budget must increase by 1.9 percent; with the updates in the Plus One budget, such as the football stipend, nursing support, a kindergarten teacher and the Eureka math program, the district’s budget would increase 2.66 percent.
Addley also painted a dire picture if the district is forced to pay the State $1.5 million. The district certainly would not be able to move forward with educational programs as such Eureka math and staffing “recalibrations” such as nursing support. However, to get to a zero percent increase, the district budget would need to be cut another $540,000. To emphasize the scope of such a cut, Addley said he would need to eliminate the athletic program entirely or the music program districtwide or World Languages in grades K-12. Board members expressed concern with “moving backward” if the BOF holds to a zero percent increase.
Apparently, most people don’t believe Malloy’s plan will come to fruition. Both Addley and BOE Chairman Ron Walther said that the consensus from other towns was to budget as usual, making no drastic cuts anticipating a large payment to the State. Addley said he spoke with legislators who believe the Governor’s proposal will not be adopted. Most board members accepted this view and supported Addley submitting a budget with a 1.9 percent increase with room for adjustment as the budget process proceeds next month. Steven Royer was the only holdout from this perspective stating that he felt that the BOF’s guideline was clear and should be followed.
Though the state’s budget woes are well-known, the teachers’ pension fund has been an issue for decades. While teachers have paid in their share since the fund began, the state has never fully funded its portion. As a result, the State shows a large liability on its balance sheet and is seeking to mitigate possible damage to the state’s credit rating by having districts pay its share of the fund. Because $400 million won’t rectify the problem, districts theoretically could have this payment each year, limiting their ability to provide mandated services.
Senators John Kissel and Kevin Witkos and Representative Bill Simanski provided their annual legislative update for the Board of Education. “Regionalization” was the biggest buzzword this session. With 200 school districts in Connecticut, some serving a very small number of students, the legislators were very interested in districts regionalizing services, particularly in the area of special education.
Bill Simanski strongly supported changes to the existing special education system. First, creating “centers of excellence” for children with special needs to save districts service duplication and therefore education dollars. Second, he wants to shift the burden of proof in special education cases from schools alone to equal proof with parents. This would alleviate some costs from districts as they negotiate with parents about services for children with special needs.
Kevin Witkos agreed that regionalizing services particularly in the special needs area is desirable as is shifting the shifting the burden of proof. He also thinks that centers of excellence for special needs children may offer districts funding predictability. As special education plays a large role in district budgets, managing those costs could be very helpful to boards of education.
Witkos also mentioned that the legislators’ education committee has 400 bills to review. While it is unlikely the committee will get through all of them, he suggested that members of the public testify in person to share their stories about bills which will affect them. He encouraged those wishing to testify to call his office to make the process easier.
John Kissel did not fully share his colleagues opinions on changes to special education. As a former teacher, he believes in mainstreaming children with special needs and creating school communities that embrace differences. The centers of excellence would not follow this model. He also expressed concern for parents regarding the burden of proof issue, while understanding the financial predicament for districts.