Christine Stuart file photo
Municipal officials and taxpayers groups will be happy to hear that a bill to give towns more control over their education budgets is on its way to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk.

The Senate on Saturday followed the House’s lead with the unanimous passage of H.B. 7019, An Act Concerning The Minimum Budget Requirement.

Current law dictates that municipalities must spend, at a minimum, approximately the same amount on education as they did the previous year. At a time when many schools are facing declining enrollment and finding ways to operate more efficiently, the requirement means residents still have to cough up at least as much in taxes for education as they did the previous year.

Essex Board of Education Chairman Lon Seidman testified in favor of the legislation earlier this year. He said the current minimum budget requirement means his town must leave at least $45,000 in the budget that he would have otherwise reduced based on declining enrollment and other efficiencies.

Seidman also said that because of the compounding nature of the MBR year over year, that unnecessary $45,000 he has to leave in the budget could climb to $320,000 in five years.

H.B. 7019 would relax the requirement by taking enrollment, efficiencies, and performance into account.

Municipalities showing a decline in student population would be eligible to reduce their education budgets by 50 percent of the tuition rate for each empty seat. The maximum reduction depends on the number of students eligible for free or reduced lunch. A district in which 20 percent or more students qualify for assistance would be able to dip 1.5 percent below the previous years’ budget, while a district with less than 20 percent of its student body demonstrating need would be able to go 3 percent below the minimum budget requirement.

The bill also allows municipalities to seek approval from the state Board of Education to reduce their budgets even more. Any excess reduction must have the blessing of the local school board.

The state’s 30 lowest performing schools would still be required to spend as much as they did the year prior. On the other end of the spectrum, the bill would repeal the minimum budget requirement for the top 10 percent of the state’s highest performing schools.

The bill has been championed by House Speaker Brendan Sharkey.

Under existing regulations, districts can technically spend less than they did the year prior — but only by one-half of one percent.

Penalties for exceeding the statutory requirements are levied at a 2-to-1 ratio. In the current framework, a town that cuts its budget by $50,000 and breaks the one-half of 1 percent threshold could see $100,000 cut from its education cost-sharing grant from the state.