With two separate bills calling for the regionalization of school districts, we have begun a conversation about education costs in the state. But if you were to ask municipal leaders what concerns them about education costs, the Municipal Budget Requirement (MBR) would be nearly at the top of their list.
For those unfamiliar with the MBR, it says that towns must have in their education budget no less than it did in the previous fiscal year regardless of factors such as school population changes. If you spent $100,000 last year, you must spend $100,000 this year. There are many reasons this doesn’t make sense. Most notably because budgets cannot be finagled to the same dollar amount year after year. The state knows this, but it has put this burden on municipalities anyway.
This isn’t to say that there are not good reasons why the MBR was introduced. Connecticut has always prided itself on quality public education, and the MBR — originally the Minimum Expenditure Requirement (MER) — tied municipal spending to a minimum per pupil spending. Over time, that connection became in name only, and when the MER became the MBR, its goal became to prohibit towns from supplanting local education funding when it received increases from the state.
By law, our school districts are tested on their performance through the State’s Accountability Index. This system looks at not only graduation rates, but also chronic absenteeism and physical fitness of students, among other criterion, to give a deeper and fuller report of a school districts success. Those that rank on the bottom of that scale become Alliance Districts, where extra state dollars are funneled to help them reach higher standards of excellence.
Currently, there are 33 Alliance Districts designated for Fiscal Years 18-22, and they serve more than 200,000 students in over 410 schools, making up a full third of our education system in Connecticut.
If the original intent was to ensure that Connecticut students continue to have access to some of the best schools in the country, then it would make sense to eliminate the MBR for non-alliance districts altogether as the state has already implemented other programs to identify and help underperforming schools.
Furthermore, tying budgets to a strict limit does not allow for fluctuations that schools see when it comes to their student populations. After the Great Recession of 2008, the population in America took a downward trend. Millennials, the youngest of whom are 23 years old, are having less children than any generation before them. It is no surprise then that Connecticut’s school populations are declining. But towns have no recourse under the MBR to lower their budgets to reflect this current population trend.
One group that is growing are special education students. There are 70,000 special education students in the state, and one out of every five dollars spent on education goes to their care and education. Because the federal government falls short on their share — they had promised 40 percent, but only pay 10 — the majority of these costs fall onto the state and municipalities.
Towns and cities try to plan for these expenses, but a single special-needs child moving out of town can represent hundreds of thousands of dollars. In one instance in Southeastern Connecticut, a child was budgeted $260,000 for their special care, until they moved one town over.
If the state does not move to eliminate the MBR for all non-alliance districts, then special exceptions must be made to allow school districts, regional school districts and municipalities to reduce the MBR to reflect the costs associated with special education students when such students leave the district.
Common sense exemptions could be reflected in other areas. For one, you could create exemptions for municipalities that demonstrated savings through increased efficiencies or regional collaborations, or for towns that pay more than 50 percent of their education costs. Additionally, payments toward the Teachers’ Retirement System should count towards meeting the obligations of the MBR.
Gov. Ned Lamont has stated that he wants more carrots than sticks in his vision of Connecticut, and the MBR definitely fits in the latter. Municipal officials take very seriously our responsibility to provide quality public education. We want students to learn, develop, and realize their potential. We examine and recommend ways to be innovative and create efficiencies without negatively impacting the classroom experience. Eliminating the MBR for all non-alliance districts, or greatly expanding the exemptions is such a cost-effective measure. It’s an unnecessary and unwieldy mandate, and should be relegated to the history books.
Michael Freda is the first selectman of North Haven and second vice president of CCM, which is included among the sponsors of this website.
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