Common sense isn’t a quality in great supply at the Capitol, but when House Republicans and their Democratic speaker can find common ground on the solution to a problem, then you know you’re really onto something.
At issue is the state’s absurd Minimum Budget Requirement (MBR), which severely restricts school districts from decreasing their spending. Even if school districts see dramatic decreases in enrollments, the statute requires each district to budget the same amount for education as it did in the previous fiscal year.
Indeed, if spending in a school district is more than one half of one percent less than it was the previous year, the state can punish you in a manner than is disproportionate to the “crime.” So if your small school district budgets $100,000 less than the previous year, then the state can withhold $200,000 in aid. Charming.
I understand that the law was borne of the best of intentions. It’s unspoken goal was likely to protect local school districts from vengeful taxpayers groups. It’s explicit purpose was to keep districts from using an increase in the state’s Educational Cost Sharing Grants (ECS) to supplant local funding for education.
Still, as a soon-to-be empty-nester, I’d say this law makes about as much sense as budgeting the same amount for household food even after your kids have all fled for greener pastures and are gorging themselves every day in the university dining commons.
The situation has gotten so out of hand that the General Assembly’s Education Committee has taken up MBR reform as a cause and its chief advocate is no less than Democratic House Speaker Brendan Sharkey. You see, the school district in Sharkey’s own hometown of Hamden has seen its enrollments shrink by 3.28 percent since 2009, while district spending has risen by 6 percent.
The situation is even more out of control in other towns. My colleague Lon Seidman, who also chairs the Essex Board of Education, testified before the committee. Over the last five years, that town saw a 14.33 percent decline in its student body while its expenditures shot up by 8 percent.
Seidman was exasperated that he had to explain to his constituents an indefensible policy that forces school districts to spend more than they need on the costliest line in the town budget.
“I will have to explain to them that because we are making responsible reductions to our budget due to enrollment declines, the MBR mandate requires us to leave in at least $45,000 we would have otherwise reduced,” he said.
I understand that sometimes fixed costs and a rising special education burden can cause spending to climb even as the school-age population shrinks, but at least districts should have the option of passing savings on to taxpayers. Otherwise, school boards have no incentive to find those savings by wringing inefficiencies out of the system. Meanwhile, taxpayers get screwed.
“It doesn’t do much good to create efficiencies in our programs for our local school boards if they can’t decrease their budgets accordingly to reflect the savings,” said the speaker who, in an ironic role reversal, testified before the committee, answering questions more than asking them.
Unfortunately, MBR relief is really just a symptom of a greater problem. All the MBR reform in the world won’t halt the inexorable march of increasing school spending. Special education costs will continue to rise at an alarming pace and health insurance premiums for school employees are climbing at a rate well above inflation.
School employees regularly get pay raises of two, three, or four percent. Meanwhile, middle class wages stagnate in the private sector, where the money originates to fund our schools. And enrollments are shrinking all across the northeast, causing poorer economies of scale for school districts. It doesn’t take a genius to see that we have an unsustainable model for school funding.
Unless we change the way we do business, all but the wealthiest school districts will be in what Malloy administration budget chief Ben Barnes has called a state of “permanent fiscal crisis.” Barnes was talking about the state government, but school districts across New England face the same problem: balancing stagnant wages with ballooning education costs.
Unless things change, the solution will likely be painful. Higher taxes, cuts in programs, and school boards that get tough during collective bargaining sessions. Avert your eyes because it will be ugly.
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