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Should towns have more control over school spending? Wallingford area candidates weigh in.

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Editor’s note: This story responds to a reader question through the Record-Journal’s Voices initiative, an ongoing effort to cover the news that matters most to you. If you have a question you’d like us to report on, visit www.myrecordjournal.com/voices.

WALLINGFORD — Municipalities, more often than not, spend at least 50 percent of their total budgets on education, supplemented by state aid.

Connecticut funds its public schools through a combination of local property taxes and state Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grants, the amount of which is based on factors including student enrollment and poverty level.

When the state makes changes to how ECS grants are allocated, some towns end up receiving less. Wallingford saw a reduction in its ECS grant of nearly $548,000 in 2019, a decrease of 2.6 percent.

The state’s minimum budget requirement (MBR) prohibits school districts from reducing their spending from one fiscal year to the next. If a municipality increases its education budget, that dollar amount becomes the new MBR for the next fiscal year.

Although there are exceptions to the MBR that towns can utilize — such as if a town loses part if its state aid, it may reduce its education budget in an amount equal to the aid reduction — some feel that it bumps up against Connecticut’s home rule law.

Chris Shortell, a Republican Town Councilor who also served one term on the Wallingford Board of Education, recently questioned the MBR system and wanted to know how candidates who are running for state office feel about state control over municipal spending.

Shortell, 48, is a lifelong Wallingford resident and has two children who attend Wallingford Public Schools.

“To me,” he said, “in the end you want to give control to local boards of education to innovate and do what they think is best for their town and not attach mandated spending to that, which doesn’t help anyone.”

He cites studies from the Cato Institute and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress that have shown no correlation exists between increased education spending and improved outcomes, or at least higher test scores.

“Greater spending in education has not proven to lead to better outcomes, based on a number of studies of national U.S. spending,” he said, which matters “in an era of a shrinking taxpayer base, and higher taxes, and scarcity of funding.”

The Cato Institute study found that lowering education spending had no effect on student performance, either.

In a more localized example, state Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher issued a ruling in 2016 in the case of Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell that, in part, found that state spending on education was constitutionally adequate.

Although the ruling was overturned by the state Supreme Court in 2018, it served as a political referendum on equity and adequacy in education financing that conservatives have been pointing to ever since as a reason to not spend money on educational facilities, programming and other services.

Shortell said that he understand that there are inequities in the state between some cities and other towns, but he also questioned why the state dictates to a municipality how much it must spend as a baseline on education and not other public services.

“Why don’t they do that with firefighting?” he said. “Isn’t firefighting important? What gives the state the right to dictate one element, and actually the biggest element in our (town) budget, versus any other number of services that are just as important as education, where they don’t do that.”

Wallingford School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo said that MBR has not been a significant topic of discussion in past budget meetings. State mandates and federal laws regarding certain services for students continue to contribute to budgetary increases annually, he said.

“While our enrollment, like most districts in the state, is declining,” Menzo said, “there are annual costs for services our students and families have come to appreciate and expect that increase.”

A decrease of 40 to 100 students annually does not necessarily equate into significant savings, he added, “because seldom do those students all reside in the same part of town or are enrolled in the same grade level.”

Shortell said he wanted to know how much control the candidates vying to represent Wallingford in the state legislature think the state should have over a municipality, philosophically.

“What do they think is an appropriate amount of control in a local town budget?” he said. “I think candidates offer a lot of rhetoric about the importance of local control, but a position on this specific issue would tell me they meant it.”

Candidates respond

The Record-Journal asked six candidates running for seats in the state legislature to answer Shortell’s original question:

“Connecticut’s Minimum Budget Requirement (MBR) prohibits a municipality from budgeting less for education than it did the previous year. Philosophically, do you agree with this means of state control over local town budgeting? Do you believe that a town like Wallingford, with declining student enrollment, should have more control over education funding, the same way it does on other vital services like public safety and public works?”

90th House

Jinks, Fishbein

Republican incumbent Craig Fishbein

“I understand the need for the MBR due to the fact that annually the state contributes millions of dollars for local education expenses. If the MBR went away, then arguably a municipality could artificially decrease their local education budget and seek more from the state, thereby burdening the taxpayers of other towns. On the other hand, I do think that municipalities should have the ability to reduce their budget based upon certain changed conditions. For that reason, in 2019 I co-sponsored HB5087, which would permit a municipality to reduce its education budget due to declining enrollment; HB5180, which would permit a decrease if a special education student was being serviced by a different school district; and HB5243, which would permit a decrease if the state reduced its contribution. Local elected officials should have more control over local budgets, and I am proud to be a part of these discussions in Hartford.”

Democratic challenger Jim Jinks

“Connecticut has among the best schools in the country. Our high rankings for education are one of the big reasons people move here and choose to raise a family here. We should be proud of what we’ve accomplished while being mindful our success is very uneven. Some credit could go to the Minimum Budget Requirement. The MBR limits a municipality’s ability to divert what would otherwise be education funding to other non-education expenses. The state does allow for several exceptions, so it's not an entirely inflexible mandate. But I serve on our School Modernization Committee in Cheshire. We've recently been presented with enrollment studies that show a significant increase in school enrollments, beginning when our current kindergarten students are entering fourth or fifth grade. Any parent can tell you that amount of time goes by in a blink. Municipalities won’t be thinking about ‘declining enrollments’ for very long.”

34th Senate

Cicarella, Capone

Democrat April Capone

“I understand the reasons behind the implementation of the Minimum Budget Requirement (MBR), and as a former Mayor, think the system needs more flexibility so that towns can address their specific and nuanced local needs. I do support requirements for caps on administrative salaries, because I firmly believe that our local education budget should focus on students first and foremost. Additionally, there’s an important conversation to be had about districts sharing back-office functions — which don’t affect the students — in order to save costs. Too often those back office efforts are duplicated district to district, and there’s cost savings to be found in streamlining that process.”

Republican Paul Cicarella

“I believe local control is extremely important to ensure the voices of our teachers, parents and children are always heard loud and clear. There is also value in having policies that ensure state education dollars are used for their intended purpose, but any policy must be balanced with local control especially if student enrollment is declining. To protect education funding and local control, Connecticut needs to stop proposing things like shifting the costs of teacher pensions onto municipalities. The state is responsible for these costs and shifting them onto towns will only lead to less funding for education, teacher layoffs or property tax increases. State funding for education and local control must be protected.”

85th House

Mushinsky, Ulbrich

Democratic incumbent Mary Mushinsky

“Both the state, through the state constitution, enforced by court cases, and the towns are responsible for educating students. The Minimum Budget Requirement (MBR) does not strictly prohibit a municipality from budgeting less for education than it did the previous year. A town may choose to budget less, but it will then get less state education aid. When the state’s Education Cost Sharing Grant (ECS) increases, the town’s Minimum Budget Requirement increases by the same amount. A town may also request a waiver for a number of reasons listed in state law, including a reduced number of students or the cost of COVID-19 expenditures on the school system. In one recent waiver, Portland was allowed to reduce its local appropriation for education if it demonstrated savings from district efficiencies to the satisfaction of the Commissioner of Education. Wallingford could apply for its own waiver to the Commissioner.”

Republican challenger Weston Ulbrich

“Local control of education is a top priority of my campaign for state representative. Municipal budgets need not to be constrained by state law or mandates. The Town of Wallingford and the State of Connecticut must be more agile to solve modern day challenges like education funding during rapidly changing times and technology. Although the MBR allows for several loopholes to avoid illogical annual increases, the democratically elected Wallingford Board of Education and parents of students should have the ultimate say on how to go about spending.”

If you have a question about the state election you’d like us to report on, share it with us by filling out the form below or visit www.myrecordjournal.com/voices.

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