By Christopher Keating, Capitol Bureau Chief
Courant staff writer Robert Frahm contributd to this reportf
March 5, 2005
The state's education funding formula has become lopsided, unfair
and "totally, purely political,'' the top House Republican says.
It is so skewed, he said, that for every income-tax dollar Hartford
pays in, the city gets back $4.39 in overall state aid. Greenwich,
one of Connecticut's wealthiest towns, gets only 2 cents on every
dollar its taxpayers pay. House GOP leader Robert Ward said Friday
it's time to scrap the system and write a new and fair formula
for distributing Connecticut's wealth.
The cities need and deserve more state funding than affluent
Fairfield County towns, Ward said, but the public is unaware
how disproportionate the funding has become.
"I thought it was skewed,
but I had no idea it was as far as it is,'' Ward said. "This
cries out for some fairness. ... The formula is totally skewed,
not a little bit skewed.''
Money for schools makes up most of state funding to municipalities,
and Hartford collected the most in cost-sharing funds this fiscal
year -- nearly $165 million. By contrast, more than 35 towns
are receiving less than $1 million this year -- the lowest being
Cornwall at less than $60,000.
During a press conference Friday at the state Capitol complex,
Ward appeared with fellow Republicans displaying a map color-coded
to show the amounts each town receives. A separate map displayed
the words "Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport'' to show which municipalities
receive the most money.
That map prompted a heated response from Rep. Christopher Caruso
of Bridgeport, who confronted House Republican chief of staff
Andrew Norton after the news conference.
Caruso, a Democrat, charged that Republicans were being divisive,
pitting the cash-strapped cities against the affluent towns.
"You should burn that,'' Caruso said to Norton, a former state
legislator who was holding one of the posters from the news conference.
"You should be ashamed of yourself. You know what, Andy, you
should live in Bridgeport for a week. ... It's just wrong, and
it's offensive. It's shameful.''
Norton tried to interject, but Caruso would not let up, saying,
"I think you guys go to college to get stupid. You haven't seen
Bridgeport, Andy, and you know it.''
Norton finally responded, "Your mock disappointment is just
Ward, who was standing several feet away, was drawn into the
debate, but said he did not want to get into a personal argument
"If we don't give him all the money, he's offended,'' Ward
said. "My job isn't to worry about insulting people. It's to
put the facts out. When [Democrats in the cities] continually
call for tax increases, that's easy to do because their constituents
aren't paying it.''
The answer to the problem, Ward said, is to scrap the complicated
funding formula and rewrite it. The formula includes more than
20 different factors, including the number of students on welfare
and in special education, mastery test scores, per capita income,
and the three-year average of the town's "net equalized grand
list,'' among others. The formula has been changed annually since
Ward's press conference ignited a philosophical debate over
the so-called millionaires' tax and who is paying their fair
share of the state income tax. Democrats have repeatedly said
that those earning more than $1 million annually are not paying
enough to fund the state's needs. Republicans have countered
with state statistics that show the top 7 percent of taxpayers
-- a group that includes taxpayers earning $150,000 or more --
ante up more in state income tax than the bottom 93 percent combined.
Sen. Thomas Gaffey, a Meriden Democrat, said he, too, is looking
for fairness regarding the state's wealthiest citizens.
"These folks clearly can afford more,'' Gaffey said. "This
is going to be a big fight this year, and we're throwing the
gauntlet down now.''
Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, a West Hartford Democrat, said the
current funding is appropriate because the legislature is required,
under a court mandate, to provide equal educational opportunity
"There are no Democratic or Republican children, the last time
I checked,'' Fleischmann said, adding that Ward should "put
his partisan blinders aside.''
At the same time that Ward's news conference was being held,
the education committee was meeting in a nearby room to hear
school officials and municipal leaders ask for more state money
for public schools. They urged lawmakers to remove spending limits
that have prevented full funding of the cost-sharing grant, the
major form of state school aid.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell's proposal to increase the cost-sharing grant
by 2 percent "does not even allow districts to keep up with
inflation,'' said Jean Lafave, representing the Connecticut Association
of Boards of Education.
Although the association supported Rell's plan to increase state
aid for excess special education costs, Lafave urged lawmakers
not to limit the increase to the $25 million proposed in Rell's
Lafave, however, supports Rell's proposals to increase funding
for magnet and charter schools and pre-school education.
Bridgeport Mayor John Fabrizi said the over-reliance on property
taxes "is a major impediment to achieving educational excellence
and equity.'' From the time the state first imposed a cap on
the educational cost-saving grant a decade ago, the cap has cost
Bridgeport $125 million, he said.
Officials from West Hartford, long known for its support of
public schools, told the committee that significant population
shifts, including growing numbers of low-income families, have
pushed the school budget to the limit.
Unless there is a change in the state aid formula, "we cannot
continue to adequately fund public education,'' West Hartford
Mayor Scott Slifka testified. "We are not wealthy and cannot
continue to do this on our own.'
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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