Public School sign detail on school bus
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Nearly 200 residents signed up during a Friday public hearing to speak largely in favor of legislation to boost state support for Connecticut’s lower-income school districts in the wake of expiring federal COVID relief funding. 

The legislature’s Education and Appropriations Committees heard testimony on a bill, which would expedite scheduled increases in the Education Cost Sharing grants in time to offset the absence of federal funding when it expires in fiscal year 2025. 

The change will result in an additional $275 million in state funding, according to the nonprofit group School + State Finance Project. The bill will direct its financial assistance to school districts considered underfunded by the state’s current ECS formula. Lisa Hammersley, the group’s executive director, said the bill would result in a net increase in funding for all but 12 towns. 

During the hearing, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker told lawmakers that his city spends roughly $17,500 per student, well below the amount spent by wealthier New Canaan, which spends almost $23,000 per student. Despite that disparity, New Haven has higher taxes, Elicker said. 

“Any reasonable person would say that we need to spend more on those children who face these types of extreme challenges to allow them an equal education,” Elicker said. “However, in this state we do the opposite. School districts in wealthier towns by and large spend much more than school districts in urban areas on a per-child basis.”

High school students offered testimony in favor of the legislation both in person and remotely. Juliann Noyd, a young Watertown resident who attends the agricultural high school Woodbury FFA, told the panel she opted to enroll in the program due to shortcomings in her home district’s programing.

“Speaking to the people who are still in the district that I left, they feel that they don’t have that opportunity that I had to fight for, that I had to move districts for,” Noyd said. “This bill, with its passing, will help equalize that.”

The bill would change how charter, magnet and regional agricultural schools are funded by weighting that funding per pupil based on that student’s needs.

Meanwhile, some education officials told lawmakers they would be forced to cut programming or staff if their districts do not receive additional funding. Throughout the several hour hearing, town officials and lawmakers pointed to a coming fiscal cliff created by receding federal dollars. 

Nathan Quesnel, superintendent of East Hartford Public Schools, told legislators the bill represented an opportunity to avoid layoffs in their districts. 

“In your communities, you’re going to be talking about large reductions in force. You’re going to be talking about layoffs in your districts in fiscal year ‘25,” Quesnel said. “But this is another component that I know has been before this committee many times and this gives you an opportunity to fix it… the opportunity to do something that’s legacy-setting for Connecticut.”

The bill appears to have broad support among lawmakers. Leaders of both Democratic caucuses spoke at a Friday event promoting the legislation. Rep. Kathleen McCarty, a Waterford lawmaker and senior Republican on the Education Committee, also participated in the event and discussed the coming fiscal cliff during Friday’s hearing.

Other Republicans worried that the legislation does not assist rural towns struggling with transportation costs, which are not weighted under the ECS formula. Hammersley said lawmakers had the authority to amend the formula, which was last updated in 2017.

“That 2017 formula is a little bit of a sacred cow up here,” Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, said. “It’s kind of hard to get anybody to sit down and talk about actually looking at it and what the impacts have been to the rural towns.”

Even if the bill finds enough support for passage, it remains to be seen whether Gov. Ned Lamont will endorse the proposal. According to CTInsider, the governor has previously been skeptical of revisiting ECS funding and said he wanted local education officials to come up with strategies for using the remaining COVID relief funds. 

On Friday afternoon, Lamont’s office released a statement which said that his coming budget proposal would include funding increases to ECS, but less than the $275 million expected under the bill.

“My proposed budget will increase funding for ECS by $46 million next year and $91 million in fiscal year 2025, on top of new money for initiatives to help students struggling with absenteeism and disengagement and to recruit more teachers and paraprofessionals to the classroom,” Lamont said. “I look forward to working with the legislature on further proposals to provide the highest quality education to our students.”

During the hearing in the Legislative Office Building across the street from the state Capitol, Rep. Jeff Currey, an East Hartford Democrat who co-chairs the Education Committee, said that without additional funding, local officials would likely turn to policymakers in Hartford when federal grants run out in the next couple years.

“Unfortunately there seems to be the misunderstanding and misconception across the street that this money is there and it’s going to resolve all of this but this money is not there forever,” Currey said. “There is an end date on this and we have to be able to step in and take care of that once this money is gone.”

Jamilah Prince-Stewart, executive director of FaithActs for Education, pointed to the state’s surplus, currently projected at $1.3 billion for the fiscal year, and said Connecticut could afford to make the investment in its schools.

“Holding this money when it could be used to fund resource-deprived school districts is akin to putting a locked fridge of food in front of starving people and our people are starving for justice,” Prince-Stewart said.