Some Communities Have Been Diverting State Grants To Municipal
July 18, 2005
By LORETTA WALDMAN, Courant Staff Writer
Taxpayers might not know it, but the state aid sent to cities and
towns for education does not always find its way to schools. Municipal
officials have been able to divert or "supplant" portions
of educational cost sharing grants to pay for roads, heavy equipment
and other expenses having nothing to do with education.
A provision tucked into a bill passed in the waning hours of the
state legislative session last month is changing that. The added
language is putting teeth in the Education Cost Sharing program
and giving school officials the leverage they need to claim the
Technically an amendment to the state Education Cost Sharing grant
program, the measure requires any municipality getting an increase
in ECS money to appropriate no less for education than it did in
the prior year, plus the increase in ECS funds. Municipalities
that do not comply face penalties twice the amount they shortchanged
education. The money would be taken from future ECS grants.
"It's basically saying if a town receives additional education
dollars, those funds must be spent on education," said state
Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, and House chairman of
the legislature's education committee. "Unfortunately, there
are a number of towns who have a lamentable history of reallocating
education dollars for other needs. "
In New Britain, the battle over the money has become an annual
School leaders grumble about not getting what they're due while
skeptical elected officials wrestle with competing demands on their
scant resources and try to keep taxpayers happy.
This year was the first in recent memory when cash-strapped city
leaders did not fund education at or only slightly above the minimum
required by the state. In the fiscal years beginning in 2001 and
2002, education spending teetered so close to the edge that it
triggered audits by the state Department of Education and threatened
New Britain with fines double the amount of the shortfall.
School officials in Bridgeport, where school spending also hovers
close to the minimum allowed by the state, requested the change
in the law, Fleischmann said.
Another municipality where funding for education has been an issue
is Winsted, where voters have the power to cut funding for education
below what it was in the previous year.
It took until the spring for Winsted voters to approve the 2004-05
town budget. The spending plan went to referendum seven times before
The tussle over the money is rooted in the fact that education
cost sharing grants and other state aid for education are deposited
in the general fund of a city or town and then doled out to school
boards. Because any additional education cost sharing money is
not allocated until the end of the legislative session in late
June, city officials have the option of hanging on to whatever
they receive above the amount requested for school budgets.
"It beefs up the fund balance when it's more than anticipated," said
Glenn Clocko, comptroller for Bristol, who estimated that 80 percent
to 90 percent of cities and towns in the state use the money for
expenses other than education.
"That's the game," said Mark DeNicholas, director of
finance for the Winsted Board of Education. "As long as [city
officials] zero out the budget in the end, they can manipulate
That's exactly what happened in Winsted last year, when a local
legislator secured an additional $275,000 in education grant money
for the city, none of which was passed through to the school board.
"It was used to defray taxes," said
Kathleen O'Brien, the school board's chairwoman.
The tighter guidelines apply only to ECS grants - the largest
chunk of state aid for education by far - but municipalities can
still hang onto reimbursements from the state for special education,
public school transportation and education for the blind. That's
where city leaders in New Britain found the $308,275 needed to
reduce the tax rate by half a mill.
"It's the common council's prerogative," said John Jedrecjezyk,
finance director in New Britain. "If they want to pass it
through they can, but it's certainly within their authority" to
The measure was one of 60 provisions
in a larger bill known as an "implementer," which stipulates
how state money should be spent for various education programs
and initiatives. It went into effect July 1, but interpreting
it has not been easy.
In Tolland, the town council sought the opinion of the town attorney
before voting Tuesday on how to spend its $133,000 ECS windfall.
The school district wanted the extra money, but town officials
were not sure they were entitled to it because of the school budget
increase of nearly $1 million they was approved.
Cities are not obliged to turn over the money when increased spending
exceeds ECS increases, the town attorney determined. Council members
voted 6-1 to give the money to the school board anyway, but over
the objections of residents who said they felt that the decision
undermined voters, who approve the school budget by referendum.
"You have competing principles here," said Peter Curry,
Tolland's acting town manager. "It wasn't easy to sort out."
School officials applaud the measure, but they have reservations.
"It's a step in the right direction, but it doesn't go far
enough," said New Britain Superintendent Doris Kurtz. "At
a time when we are all expected to get to the same finish line
... all state money for education needs to be passed through."
"I think there is still vagueness," said Tolland Superintendent
William Guzman. "Until the state decides how they will monitor
this stuff, there will still be uncertainty. In our particular
case, [we were] asking the town council to appropriate the money
because our budget was reduced and we [knew] the funds [would]
go a long way to bring back some of the programs we cut."
Municipal officials put up little resistance to the change, Fleischmann
said. He suspects that it has something to do with the demands
they make each year at the state Capitol for more ECS money.
"You can't have it both ways," he said. "You
can't accept extra money and then use it for something else.
That's just duplicitous. I think taxpayers have the right to
expect that when we allocate more money for education, that money
will be spent on education."
Lisa Carver, chief of staff for New Britain Mayor Timothy Stewart,
called the measure unnecessary, at least in New Britain.
"We already have been doing this," Carver said. "Clearly,
in a community with our educational needs, the city funds education
well above what we get from the state. It's just one more mandate
on municipalities that gives [municipalities] less flexibility
with their budget."
Fleischmann defended the change and said the existing law did
not do enough to ensure that the money was spent on what it was
intended for. The fact that $1.6 billion was poured into the program
by the legislature this year - the biggest allocation in the history
of ECS - made protecting the money all the more important, he said.
"This new mechanism is a powerful enforcement tool," Fleischmann
said. "We had to make sure that money was used for education,
not fixing potholes."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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