HARTFORD, CT — It isn’t an unusual complaint from Connecticut town officials that even though the majority of a municipality’s budget is for education, they have no control over school expenditures.
The question has often been raised: should Connecticut give some local school boards the ability to set their own tax rates for their education budgets?
The General Assembly’s Planning and Development Committee heard Friday from local elected leaders about the issue during a public hearing on a bill that would provide fiscal independence for local and regional school districts with average daily memberships of less than 15,000 students.
The issue is controversial and has divided local elected officials.
In favor is South Windsor Town Manager Matt Galligan.
Galligan, prior to working in Connecticut, served as state auditor for the New York State Comptroller’s Office, among other positions he held in the state.
Galligan told the committee he finds Connecticut system of budgeting to be “a waste of time and energy.”
In New York, Galligan said, “the superintendent and the Board of Education would put their budget together and go directly to the voters or taxpayers and answer questions and advocate on behalf of their budgets.”
“Having worked in both New York and Connecticut, I found that their system of delivering education is more efficient and effective,” Galligan said, telling the committee it forces better and continued communication between town and school officials through the entire budget-making process.
Galligan added: “In many instances in Connecticut, the education budget is simply a line item when it is presented to the public though it represents approximately 70 percent of the overall budget. Whereas the general government budget is itemized in detail.”
“The result of creating a financially independent education taxing district is that the board of education would, by default, have to present an itemized budget for taxpayers to review and vote on, increasing transparency and accountability,” Galligan said.
But Galligan’s statement that the New York system of doing budgets is superior to Connecticut’s ran into opposition from several committee members.
A separate taxing district could potentially create “chaos” in a town, Rep. Tom Arnone, D-Enfield said.
“It would pit young against the old,” Arnone told Galligan. “It’s going to be parents with kids on one side against those with no kids on the other,” he said.
Former House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, who was in front of the committee to testify on another bill, threw his support behind the taxing authority initiative.
“It increases transparency on how money is spent at the local level,” Sharkey told the committee.
Creating independent education taxing districts was recommended in 2015 by a legislative commission created by Sharkey when he was Speaker of the House. It has again been put forward by Gov. Ned Lamont’s shared services transition committee, which was co-chaired by Sharkey.
On the other side, Wilton Superintendent Kevin Smith said it might surprise people that he’s opposed to giving school boards independent taxing authority.
“In an era of chronic fiscal deficits at the state level and an accompanying scramble to reduce costs and increase efficiencies, there is simply no logic (and quite certainly no savings) in creating a duplicative tax collection apparatus in municipalities,” Smith said in written testimony.
Currently, 30 states have fiscally independent school districts, while 16 states have some fiscally dependent and some fiscally independent school districts, and eight states have state-dependent school districts, according to Katie Roy, executive director of the Connecticut School Finance Project.
Roy said that in states with fiscally independent school districts, taxpayers receive a bill from their town tax assessor’s office — similar to Connecticut — but the tax bill includes separate tax rates: one for the school district and one for the town.
She said there is no duplicative assessment and tax collection office for the schools.
But opposition remains.
While not taking sides in the debate, Roy said, “Fiscally independent school districts can bring a degree of greater transparency and accountability because taxpayers know the proportion of property taxes directed toward the support of local public schools and the proportion directed toward municipal services, such as police, fire, and waste removal.”
If the bill were to include school districts or municipalities that are served by academies, then you can count Norwich City Manager John Salomone as in favor.
Salomone said Norwich Free Academy (NFA) charges Norwich for each student enrolled.
“The Board of Education has no control over the bill NFA sends,” Salomone said. “Last year, the Norwich Board of Education overspent its budget and City Council had to tap into its budget reserves by over $1 million to cover the deficit.
If the taxing authority bill were passed, Salomone said, “It may have the ancillary effect of incentivizing NFA to come to the table and work with the Board of Education more closely, which they are reticent to do so now.”
Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield, said she felt one of the benefits of the Connecticut budget system is that it allows education and town officials to play to their strengths.
McCarthy Vahey, a former member of the Fairfield Board of Education, said having the education budget distinct from the municipal budget “allows us to primarily focus on educating the kids.”