School officials look to state to fill ECS hole


School officials hope the state will continue to fund public schools.

With federal stimulus aid set to run out in July, local school officials are hoping the state comes through to make up the difference.

Naugatuck superintendent John Tindall-Gibson and Board of Education Chair Kathleen Donovan as well as Region 16 Superintendent James Agostine asked legislators to flat-fund the Education Cost Sharing grant (ECS) which funds about half of their school budget.

Last year the state used funds from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to pay a portion of ECS to local school districts. The stimulus money is set to dry up this year, leaving a hole to be filled in ECS.

About $4.2 million of Naugatuck’s $56.6 million education budget came from those funds.

“[The state would] have to make up that $4 million for us,” Tindall-Gibson said.

Grants through the ARRA funded $1.4 million of Region 16’s $36.6 million education budget.

Region 16 Board of Education Chair Lisa DeGoes said she was concerned the district could loose a percentage of its ECS funding, which the region relies heavily upon.

“If the state cannot afford to give us the money for ECS that we were expecting, that’s going to be a real problem,” DeGoes said.
Several education organizations in the state have taken up the cry for the legislature to ensure ECS isn’t cut.

“The state of Connecticut used the federal money to supplant state money in the ECS,” said Joe Cirasuolo, executive director of Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS).

Now, the state has to fill that $240 million gap or schools will have to slash budgets.

“We are making the case as strongly as we can, that if the legislature doesn’t plug that hole … there’s going to be a resultant major reduction in school budgets,” Cirasuolo said.

Budget cuts could lead to larger class sizes, cutting extra circular activates, and art and music programs could be in jeopardy, Cirasuolo said.

He said his organization supports balancing the budget by trimming down other areas and raising taxes with a progressive income tax.

Tindall-Gibson said he’s been working with a collaborative group which combines the resources of CAPSS, the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE), and the Connecticut Association of School Business Officials (CASBO) to lobby legislators to maintain current levels of funding, a tall order considering the state’s $3.67 billion budget shortfall.

“Through that program, we’re trying to inform legislators about the seriousness of the issue,” Tindall-Gibson said.
He said legislators were receptive to their message.

“We’re confident that they’ll do everything they can to maintain funding for the schools,” Tindall-Gibson said.

State Rep. Len Greene of Beacon Falls said he understands the need for state funding to make up for the federal funds that are drying up.

“From a municipal standpoint, it’s a very large chunk of change,” he said.

At the same time, Greene said he was not sure if the state has the ability to cover the large gap.

As a freshman legislator, Greene said he is not familiar with the issue, and has not heard of any particular plans.

“I know that will be forthcoming over the course of the session,” Greene said.

State Rep. David Labriola of Naugatuck said the state must find a way to preserve education funding.

“Cuts in town money only directly affect the local tax payers, it just hurts them even more,” he said.

The state has already spent its rainy day fund and federal stimulus money, Labriola said.

“To fill this hole, this gap in the budget, we have to look very seriously at spending cuts,” he said.

Labriola said he would look at consolidating services and getting rid of duplication of services, privatization of state services to fill the budget gap as opposed to closing the hole on the backs of the taxpayers by raising taxes.

“I believe that it can be done, that we don’t need to raise taxes to solve this deficit,” he said.

Labriola said he hopes to roll back state spending to 2008 levels. He said reforms prompted by the budget crisis will result in a more efficient government.

“In every crisis there’s opportunity. In the end, I think we’re going to face these problems head-on,” Labriola said.
State Sen. Joseph Crisco said that everything is on the table when it comes to budget cuts, but education, like jobs, is a priority for the state.

“We have to find the money somewhere. You can’t shut down schools,” Crisco said.

He said the ECS funds are based on a formula that factors in population and social needs.

“You have to do all you can to make sure Naugatuck receives that,” Crisco said.

Crisco said it is too early to say what other programs might be cut, but the legislature must consider the trickle-down impact of their decisions.

“The state will be fair, but then you only have so many resources,” he said.

For now, local school officials are hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

“We’re building the budget right now with the idea in mind that we are going to get that level funded, but we are going to prepare a contingency if that were not going to happen. We’re hoping the legislature puts the money back where it belongs,” Agostine said.
DeGoes said she would take it as it comes and hope for the best.

“In the meantime, we have to be as frugal as possible while trying to educate the kids as best we can,” DeGoes said.
She said the district would continue to look for other grants and donations.

“Certainly we can’t be looking to the taxpayers for huge increases because we know that’s not really practical,” DeGoes said.