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OP-ED | Yes On MBR Relief, But School Funding Crisis Looms

by | Mar 27, 2015 5:30am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Education, Local Politics, Opinion, Taxes, Hamden

christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Common sense isn’t a quality in great supply at the Capitol, but when House Republicans and their Democratic speaker can find common ground on the solution to a problem, then you know you’re really onto something.

At issue is the state’s absurd Minimum Budget Requirement (MBR), which severely restricts school districts from decreasing their spending. Even if school districts see dramatic decreases in enrollments, the statute requires each district to budget the same amount for education as it did in the previous fiscal year.

Indeed, if spending in a school district is more than one half of one percent less than it was the previous year, the state can punish you in a manner than is disproportionate to the “crime.” So if your small school district budgets $100,000 less than the previous year, then the state can withhold $200,000 in aid. Charming.

I understand that the law was borne of the best of intentions. It’s unspoken goal was likely to protect local school districts from vengeful taxpayers groups. It’s explicit purpose was to keep districts from using an increase in the state’s Educational Cost Sharing Grants (ECS) to supplant local funding for education.

Still, as a soon-to-be empty-nester, I’d say this law makes about as much sense as budgeting the same amount for household food even after your kids have all fled for greener pastures and are gorging themselves every day in the university dining commons.

The situation has gotten so out of hand that the General Assembly’s Education Committee has taken up MBR reform as a cause and its chief advocate is no less than Democratic House Speaker Brendan Sharkey. You see, the school district in Sharkey’s own hometown of Hamden has seen its enrollments shrink by 3.28 percent since 2009, while district spending has risen by 6 percent.

The situation is even more out of control in other towns. My colleague Lon Seidman, who also chairs the Essex Board of Education, testified before the committee. Over the last five years, that town saw a 14.33 percent decline in its student body while its expenditures shot up by 8 percent.

Seidman was exasperated that he had to explain to his constituents an indefensible policy that forces school districts to spend more than they need on the costliest line in the town budget.

“I will have to explain to them that because we are making responsible reductions to our budget due to enrollment declines, the MBR mandate requires us to leave in at least $45,000 we would have otherwise reduced,” he said.

I understand that sometimes fixed costs and a rising special education burden can cause spending to climb even as the school-age population shrinks, but at least districts should have the option of passing savings on to taxpayers. Otherwise, school boards have no incentive to find those savings by wringing inefficiencies out of the system. Meanwhile, taxpayers get screwed.

“It doesn’t do much good to create efficiencies in our programs for our local school boards if they can’t decrease their budgets accordingly to reflect the savings,” said the speaker who, in an ironic role reversal, testified before the committee, answering questions more than asking them.

Unfortunately, MBR relief is really just a symptom of a greater problem. All the MBR reform in the world won’t halt the inexorable march of increasing school spending. Special education costs will continue to rise at an alarming pace and health insurance premiums for school employees are climbing at a rate well above inflation.

School employees regularly get pay raises of two, three, or four percent. Meanwhile, middle class wages stagnate in the private sector, where the money originates to fund our schools. And enrollments are shrinking all across the northeast, causing poorer economies of scale for school districts. It doesn’t take a genius to see that we have an unsustainable model for school funding.

Unless we change the way we do business, all but the wealthiest school districts will be in what Malloy administration budget chief Ben Barnes has called a state of “permanent fiscal crisis.” Barnes was talking about the state government, but school districts across New England face the same problem: balancing stagnant wages with ballooning education costs.

Unless things change, the solution will likely be painful. Higher taxes, cuts in programs, and school boards that get tough during collective bargaining sessions. Avert your eyes because it will be ugly.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.


H.B. 7019, An Act Concerning The Minimum Budget Requirement

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(3) Archived Comments

posted by: NoNonsense | March 27, 2015  8:24am

It’s about time this law was amended, and I hope it passes. In my own town, enrollment has declined nearly 9% while expenditures have gone up a little over 16%. And they just keep asking for more and more money, and the percentage for education in the total town budget just keeps going up. It’s not sustainable.

posted by: ocoandasoc | March 27, 2015  12:31pm

Only in CT would there be a law that penalizes local governments for reducing the burden on their taxpayers!
But the teachers unions engineered this regulation through the legislature, and I doubt that they’ll allow it to be rescinded.
While CT’s population is dwindling, I’m not sure that the number of school-age children will significantly decline State-wide since many of those leaving are older and the immigrants coming into the State are much younger.
What’s needed is a total revamp of CT’s public education system with an entirely new funding and administration paradigm, but that’s not going to happen, either.

posted by: Bluecoat | March 27, 2015  3:09pm

One of the problems here too, is that the Bureaucracy of local BOE’s never gets reduced in tight budgets.
The children always end up being used as pawns, and threats of firing teachers, and cutting programs and/or sports, always comes first.
In my Town, we have a total of five Schools, with 14 PRINCIPALS/VICE PRINCIPALS!
The overhead is way over the top, with no end in sight. This needs to be done with bi-partisan support. I just hope that the legislature does not give local BOE"s the authority to set their own mil rates.

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