A task force created to make recommendations about how the state should revamp the largest share of state education aide to cities and towns is already a month late with its report.
The clock is ticking, but members of the task force said Monday that they need until at least January to come up with a predictable, and equitable formula.
“Every way we turn there’s going to be winners or losers,” Meriden Schools Superintendent Mark Benigni said Monday during a meeting at the Legislative Office Building.
“We should all be looking at that list,” Benigni said of the factors used to calculate the formula and the consequences to local education funding. As a superintendent of a public school system, Benigni wants to know how much his municipality will receive under the formula before he offers an opinion.
The problem is the formula subcommittee hasn’t finished its work.
The number of students receiving free or reduced lunches, Title I funds, poverty, income, and property wealth could all be used as factors in calculating the ECS formula. Finding the right mix of factors still is under discussion after more than a year of meetings.
Ray Rossomondo, a researcher and policy development specialist for the Connecticut Education Association and a member of the task force, said he feels the panel is taking the current budget constraints into consideration. However, he believes the panel’s final recommendation should be free of that type of thinking.
He reminded the task force that education funding is one of the few areas of state funding that’s “bound by the constitution.”
He said maybe the task force should consider dedicating revenue streams for education to ensure predictability and sustainability, two of the four goals cited by the task force at the very beginning.
“I’m not convinced that was really part of our charge,” Sen. Andrea Stillman, co-chairwoman of the task force, told Rossomondo.
She said she understands the desire to give some certainty to local school boards about what they will receive for state funding, “but there are some circumstances beyond our control.”
“I think efforts to set aside certain funding streams in a locked box — I oppose it,” Ben Barnes, Malloy’s budget director and task force co-chairman, said. “But I understand why people want to do it and I am happy to have that discussion.”
Stillman said the goal is to make the formula more “reflective of each town’s wealth and need.”
One of the proposals being discussed includes using income, instead of property wealth, as a factor. Still other proposals would include the District Performance Index, which is a measure of students’ weighted performance on the statewide mastery tests.
Regardless of where the formula stands at the moment, James Finley, CEO and executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said “the fiscal challenges facing the state seem to be driving where this task force is going.”
Finley said it shouldn’t matter how much money the state has, the formula needs to work and be equitable for all students in the state, no matter where they live.
“They want a formula that wants a pre-determined dollar amount, instead of let’s get the formula right,” Finley said.
He said the state has a unique constitutional responsibility to fund education.
“We’re not talking about that the way we should be,” Finley, who attended the task force meeting Monday, said.
The formula subcommittee will meet with the co-chairs of the task force behind closed-doors to discuss what factors to include in the formula. It’s likely the formula will be presented to the task force at its next meeting sometime after Christmas.
In the meantime, the task force was able to agree on increasing per-pupil funding for interdistrict magnet and regional agricultural schools.
It also agreed that the state should continue to fund a portion of local special education costs to relieve the financial pressure on local school districts.
According to the draft report, this year 63,651 Connecticut students were identified as eligible for special education services. About 300 of the state agency-placed students are placed in facilities outside the state at a cost of $29 million annually.
Barnes said it may be worth it to look at hiring someone to reduce those costs. If the state can save money, he said the creation of the position will pay for itself.
He said he’s not worried about waiting for the report to be done in January. He said it still gives him time to include the recommendations in Malloy’s two-year budget proposal, which will be delivered in January.
Currently, the state is facing a $2.13 billion deficit over the next two years.