With no state budget in sight and the first day of school just around the corner, local education officials across Connecticut have taken severe steps to cut costs, hoping more draconian efforts won't be necessary.
At least one district, Torrington, has delayed the opening day of school to conserve cash as long as possible. In Tolland, 15 teachers and staff have been laid off, but officials fear that number could climb to as many as 40. Other districts have delayed hiring non-tenured teachers and ordering books and supplies, put off repairs and frozen non-payroll expenses.
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"We took these jobs to serve children in the community, and this is making it hard to do that without hurting them," a dejected Tolland Superintendent of Schools Walter Willett said last week, hours after he informed a staff member she was losing her job.
Connecticut has been limping along without a state budget since July 1, the first day of the new fiscal year. Lawmakers have been unable to agree on a new two-year plan the governor will sign that will cover a projected $3.5 billion deficit.
The impasse has forced local officials to speculate as to how much state aid they can expect once a budget is finally in place. Those guesses have been based on a number of competing state budget proposals, including Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's plan, which shifts a lot of state education aid from wealthier communities to poorer communities.
Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, noted previous state budget impasses in 1991 and 2009. But this year, she said, is much worse for public school officials.
"In those years, while we didn't have a finalized budget, people had a better idea in each community about how much they'd be receiving," she said. "This year, everything is up in the air."
In Tolland, a suburban community of about 15,000 residents, Malloy's plan would reduce the town's share from the Education Cost Sharing by $8.2 million, from $10.7 million to $2.5 million. ECS, Willett said, makes up a quarter of the revenue needed to balance the town's school budget.
While both Democratic and Republican state legislators have criticized Malloy's plan, it's unclear whether some or all his cuts will wind up in the final budget deal. Under a worst-case scenario, Tolland would have to lay off about 35 to 40 educators and staff to cover the revenue loss, which Willett said would be "a catastrophic event" for a system with roughly 360 employees.
Instead, town officials decided to use money from a reserve account to lessen the blow, lay off the 15 teachers and staff, and hope they won't need to make more job cuts once a new state budget is in place.
For Willett, the lack of agreement among state lawmakers and the governor over a state budget is frustrating.
"It feels like there's a fire in our house and it's the equivalent of the fire people showing up and arguing about what to do when the house is burning down," he said.
Earlier this month, the new What Will Our Children Lose Coalition, led by the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, CABE and other groups, sent a letter to Malloy and state legislators warning them about how school districts are already feeling the effects of uncertainty over state funding.
Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the superintendents' group, said she worries the cuts districts are making now won't be enough and layoffs will occur when kids are in school and schedules have been set for the year. Districts across the Connecticut start the new school year in late August or early September.
"I'm not sure people get the full ramification of what it is to be without a budget," she said. "Knowing, even if the message isn't a good one, is far better than not knowing."