Connecticut Budget Gridlock Leaves School Funding in Limbo

By Joseph De Avila Features Dow Jones Newswires

Connecticut's budget impasse has left schools in limbo, forcing districts to put hiring decisions on hold and making others delay the start of school.

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An executive order signed by Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has funded state operations since the new fiscal year began July 1. The state Legislature failed to pass a budget before the end of the last fiscal year for the first time since 2009, and there is still no clear indication of when an agreement will be reached to close the state's $3.5 billion deficit.

The lack of a state spending plan has created uncertainty for towns and schools districts because they don't know how much money to expect from Connecticut.

Denise Clemons, superintendent of schools in Torrington, Conn., said her district had to delay the start of school by three days to open on Sept. 5 because the state budget crunch caused cash flow problems for the town.

"It's a travesty," said Ms. Clemons, who runs a district with about 4,000 students.

Mr. Malloy signed a revised executive order on Friday that prioritizes funding for the Connecticut's lowest performing school districts. That executive order resulted in a $20 million cut for Torrington schools, which has an overall annual budget of about $74 million.

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The Legislature could restore the funding for Torrington and other school districts when it passes a budget. But for now, Ms. Clemons said the uncertainty of that has created a stressful situation for her district.

"I can't even describe the feeling of angst that a lot of people are having right now," she said.

Mr. Malloy on Friday defended his decision to prioritize funding for the state's lowest-performing school districts and said those students need the most help. The governor said he would have preferred if the Legislature had passed a stop-gap budget he proposed that would have provided more across-the-board school funding.

"This is far from optimal," Mr. Malloy said during a news conference "This is something that I've done my best to avoid."

Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said she surveyed 30 districts in rural, suburban and urban areas of the state. In those districts, 67 jobs already have been cut and another 372 potential new positions are on hold because of the budget delay.

"In August, not knowing as a district what you will receive causes tremendous anxiety," he said.

Nick Mercier, president of the board of education for New Britain, Conn., schools, said his district froze discretionary spending and professional development and reduced expenses by filling open positions with teachers at the start of their careers rather than more experienced teachers with higher salaries.

Mr. Malloy's executive order signed Friday keeps state funding flat for the district with about 10,000 students at about $86 million for a total school annual budget of about $160 million. The district had expected an $8 million increase for the school year.

Still, Mr. Mercier said the district isn't counting on that $86 million in state funding until the Legislature passes its spending plan.

"We are treating it as if we don't know when the next check is coming from the state or what that check is going to look like," he said.

Mark Benigni, superintendent of schools in Meriden, was among the districts that received the same money from the state's main education funding program as last year under Connecticut's executive order, which provides about $60 million in an overall budget of $110 million. Mr. Malloy's executive order, however, cut about $1.5 million in other grants, which could fund after school and tutoring programs among other initiatives.

Now, Mr. Benigni said he is nervously watching the calendar as October approaches. If the state hasn't passed a budget by then, he would have to consider cutting positions, he said. "We won't breathe easy till we know the budget is in place," he added.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 20, 2017 17:48 ET (21:48 GMT)