Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Budget Director Ben Barnes, who co-chairs the task force in charge of looking at the state’s Education Cost Sharing formula, tried his best to dodge reporters’ questions about whether there would be changes to the education funding formula this year.
As the awkward pauses and vague answers continued one reporter jokingly volunteered to hold him while the rest tickled the information out of him.
But Barnes defended his cagey behavior explaining that he’s in the middle of making some of those big policy decisions and wouldn’t want to say the administration will do something that it ends up scrapping. But when he was asked if Malloy will be able to accomplish everything he wants to accomplish this fiscal year without changes to the education funding formula, Barnes replied “ultimately no.”
The statement was an indication changes to the formula will be forthcoming.
But Barnes refused to offer any more details or confirm anything Thursday.
“If I were to say something and then we change our mind,” Barnes said as his voice trailed off. “There are a lot of trade offs and clearly we don’t have as much money as we’d like to, to do all the things we‘d like to get done,” he added.
He admitted there was a certain awkwardness to attending the CT Voices for Children budget forum at the state Capitol Thursday because of the proximity of the budget adjustments.
“I don’t bring any paper because I don’t want to say anything,” Barnes joked.
Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Education Committee and co-chairwoman of the ECS Task Force, said there may be some small policy changes to the “framework” of the ECS formula this year. But like Malloy, she doesn’t want to impact funding to municipalities.
“To pull the rug out from under our residents and taxpayers would not be well received,“ Stillman said Thursday in a phone interview.
However, she believes there are some small changes the state can make to the formula in anticipation that bigger changes are on the horizon.
She said there are parts of the formula that can be looked at and changed, but was reluctant to say exactly which parts of the formula will be undergoing those small changes, since the task force has yet to finalize its draft report.
Stillman said everyone is hoping fiscal conditions improve this year, so they have an opportunity to make more significant changes to the formula in fiscal year 2013.
Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee, said given all of the variables involved and the complexity of the formula he didn’t expect to see changes until 2013. However, he said he has nothing but respect for the wide range of aims the governor has enunciated on education reform.
It’s possible to set up a system where you can hold all municipalities harmless, while increasing funding to several school systems, Fleischmann said. It’s been done in the past, but how exactly how Malloy plans on funding it was still a mystery to Fleischmann.
During an interview on WNPR Wednesday Malloy told John Dankosky that his education proposal will be “the most far-reaching in our state’s history, and probably one of the most far-reaching in the nation.”
He said there are about 29 school districts mostly in urban communities that need more help than they’re currently getting from the state. His comments were similar to those made in December at the Council of Small Towns meeting.
“I’ve already said that I’m going to hold municipalities harmless of losses that we’re going to stand by our funding commitments. I made that very publicly about four or five months ago. Believe me if I say it, you can believe it,” Malloy told Dankosky.
Administration sources said changes to the formula are inevitable and will be done this year, but how they will be funded is still unclear.
Since the state won’t be increasing taxes this year many school and town officials are wondering if the state should be taking money from high performing districts to give to low performing districts. This would create winners and losers amongst municipalities.
Bart Russell, executive director of the Council of Small Towns, said Thursday that it would be quite a challenge to imagine significant changes to the ECS formula during the short session of the legislature. And “I don’t know if you can automatically assume these changes to the formula will be robbing Peter to pay Paul either,” Russell added.
He said it would be difficult and challenging to cut municipalities in the second year of the two-year budget, but the ECS formula is the 800 pound gorilla in the room.
“We’re all waiting with baited breath and hoping we’re going to be held harmless in the second year of the biennium,” Russell said.