Municipal Lobbyist: It's Time To Start Cutting School Costs
By DON STACOM
January 03, 2011
Approaching an exceptionally dismal budget season, towns and cities are taking aim at the state law that prevents them from cutting school spending.
The Minimum Budget Requirement should be abolished, a lobbying group for municipalities said Monday.
"This isn't an anti-education proposal, it's a fiscal reality proposal," said Jim Finley, president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. "The MBR goes against fundamental democracy — it disenfranchises taxpayers from controlling 70 percent of their [local] budgets."
By asking to eliminate that law, part of the group's legislative agenda for the upcoming session, CCM was firing the first salvo in a battle that's likely to continue throughout the budget season.
At stake is the $270 million gap that's looming in the next education budget: Local school systems say they can't afford to lose that money, and municipal governments are scared they could be forced to pay it.
Both sides hope the state and federal governments will make up the gap, but if that doesn't happen the outcome of the Minimum Budget Requirement struggle could determine who wins and who loses.
The Minimum Budget Requirement includes a complex formula, but in essence it guarantees that each school system gets a budget that's at least as big as the previous year's.
Educators view it as protecting schools from over-zealous finance boards or tightwad municipal administrations.
Municipal leaders see it as handcuffing them from ordering sensible spending cuts, even in an abysmal economy and even when school enrollments are dropping.
The law is largely irrelevant in most years because the overwhelming majority of communities provide more than enough to meet the required spending level.
But starting July 1, the Obama administration's economic stimulus aid to the states will vanish, leaving Connecticut with a $270 million shortfall in its budget for education grants.
That amounts to 14 percent of state aid to schools in every town and city. If the Minimum Budget Requirement stays in place, those communities would be forced to make up the shortage with local money, probably by raising taxes. If the requirement is abolished, the schools might have to absorb the hit.
"The loss of the stimulus changes the whole equation," state education department spokesman Thomas Murphy said.
New Britain is one of the few cities in Connecticut in which school spending is frequently at the lowest level legally allowed; it lost dozens of teaching jobs last year, and is already projecting another harsh budget ahead. School board President Sharon Beloin-Saavedra warned that wiping out the Minimum Budget Requirement protection would make things worse.
"Without the MBR, who knows what our budget would end up like. People talk about cutting costs by eliminating paraprofessionals, doing without foreign language in the middle schools — well, we did all those things three budget cycles ago," she said. "But I'm not going to push the panic button on this, because cutting the MBR would make no sense whatsoever. I don't see how they could possibly let that go."
Education groups are lobbying to keep the law, and later this week are expected to call publicly for the General Assembly to protect it.
CCM on Monday recommended a series of other ways that lawmakers can help towns and cities, including extending the real estate conveyance tax, authorizing local sales and hotel taxes, and assigning a "municipal ombudsman" in each state agency to help local officials coordinate economic development, planning and transportation initiatives
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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