Governor’s cuts could hurt borough schools

NAUGATUCK — The prospect of $84 million worth of mid-year cuts to municipal aid from the state has alarmed cash-strapped cities and towns across Connecticut, but it’s unclear yet whether school districts—the borough’s in particular—have cause for concern.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed the rollback last week as part of a plan to close what her office estimates as a $337.1 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year. She met Thursday for the first time with a panel of state legislators and municipal leaders who will advise her about how best to make the cuts and has called a special session of the General Assembly Dec. 15. The legislature would have to approve the governor’s plan.

Sen. Robert Kane (R-Watertown), who sits on the panel, said he felt Thursday’s meeting went well but that he didn’t come away with any clues about which types of municipal aid might be diminished.

“We don’t really know what the $84 million is,” he said. “The governor hasn’t come out with specifics.”

Gov. M. Jodi Rell has proposed cutting $84 million worth of state grants to municipalities to help mitigate Connecticut's budget deficit.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell has proposed cutting $84 million worth of state grants to municipalities to help mitigate Connecticut's budget deficit.

The $84 million figure represents a 3 percent reduction in municipal aid, which if spread uniformly across the state’s 169 municipalities would hack off $966,142 of the $32.2 million promised to Naugatuck. The vast majority of aid to the borough—$29.2 million—comes in the form of an Education Cost Sharing grant.

If Naugatuck were to lose 3 percent of that grant, the hit to a school system already more than $2 million in the hole this year would amount to $876,342

“That would be devastating,” Board of Education Chairwoman Kathleen Donovan said. “We’re really concerned about that.”

On Monday, the board laid out a cost-saving proposal that included a switch to a new health insurance plan, which would save an estimated $892,489. That savings would be negated essentially by a 3 percent blow to the district’s ECS grant.

Though Donovan expressed worry, Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Tindall-Gibson indicated that with so much turmoil surrounding Naugatuck’s school budget, possible bad news from Hartford isn’t on his radar.

“It really hasn’t been part of our discussions yet,” he said. “I haven’t heard other superintendents talking about it.”

Both of the borough’s state representatives, Republicans David Labriola and Rosa Rebimbas, said they have not heard any rumblings in the State House about how municipal aid cuts might be dispersed or whether they might affect ECS grants.

“As a member of the [General Assembly’s] education committee, I will do everything in my power to make sure cuts stay away from ECS funding,” Labriola said. “ECS cuts would be particularly devastating for Naugatuck, given our current fiscal crisis.”

Rebimbas, despite enjoying Rell’s support during the 70th District special election earlier this year, didn’t hold back criticism of the governor’s plan.

“I can tell you personally I’m very disappointed,” she said. “I do not support this whatsoever, especially for Naugatuck. Frankly, it’s a little too late for this [five months into the fiscal year].”

While local politicians may argue it is too late to withhold ECS grant money on principal, it is not too late in practicality. Though the state has pledged $29.2 million to Naugatuck this year—the same amount as last year—the borough has so far received only $7.3 million. ECS payments arrive in three installments throughout the fiscal year: 25 percent in November, 25 percent in February and 50 percent in May.

Even if Labriola and other education advocates succeed in keeping ECS off-limits, municipal grant cuts still could impact the borough’s school system, according to Donovan. She worries that if Naugatuck receives less help from the state, it will have to allocate less money to the Board of Education.

“Even if the cuts aren’t directly to education, they probably always have an effect on towns’ allocations for education,” she said.

Mayor Bob Mezzo, who is also a Board of Education member, linked the state’s budget crisis to that of Naugatuck’s school board in another way: Both are the result of mismanagement, he said, and both bodies are trying to shift the burden of their mistakes elsewhere.

“To penalize the lowest level of government for the state’s problems is irresponsible,” Mezzo said. “They’re trying to pass the buck to municipalities, who have nowhere to go [to make up the losses] but to taxpayers.”

Tindall-Gibson, already the target of no confidence votes by the Naugatuck Teachers’ League and Board of Mayor and Burgesses, just hopes Hartford’s case of missing money doesn’t make the borough’s even worse.

“Amen to that,” he said.