Budget nightmare could be reality

Gov. Dannel Malloy recently announced that he plans to cut the amount of grants Connecticut school districts receive by 28%, as well as drastically reduce the amount of state funding “wealthier” towns receive, if a budget for the state isn’t finalized by October.

The governor’s “doomsday” scenario plan would force municipalities, such as Shelton, to revisit its already finalized city/town budgets.

Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti said he’s made no plans to revisit the city budget that was accepted on May 30.

“There’s no conversation taking place because they won’t talk with you number one, number two, I just think we stay the course because I don’t think they’ll strip six million from us all in one year, and number three, I think the Board of Education has to stop the mandates. They’ve got to start supplying education the way they know they can for a lesser cost. That’s what everyone has to do,” said Lauretti who’s also currently fund-raising for his 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

“Budgets are already set. I don’t know how you go back and change the budget now. He really pulled the rug out from underneath us, all of us statewide. They’re giving these towns more money, but they already get the largest share by far.”

State Rep. Jason Perillo (R-113) and Sen. Kevin Kelly both agreed that the governor’s plan for the case of a state budget not being finalized by October does not consider the entire population.

“This is a devastating blow to my district,” said Sen. Kelly. “The governor and his followers continue to make terrible decisions that burden middle-class families who work hard every day to put food on the table and pay their mortgages. These bad policy decisions continue to show a total lack of leadership — he’s hurting seniors, he’s hurting our children and he’s hurting the average taxpayer from all corners of the state.”

“Political interest groups are getting in the way,” said Perillo. “Democratic legislators are so deeply in debt to state employee unions that it is essentially chosen the interest of 45,000 workers over the interest of the other 3.5 million state residents.”

Perillo continued.

“This idea that putting more state money into large city schools, in my opinion, has been a failure. To think that another $10 million in Hartford’s budget is going to improve education, in my opinion, is absurd,” said Perillo. “You can simplify it and say that the Shelton school district is not getting money, but the Hartford school system and districts alike are getting more money.”

Speculating the Malloy’s intentions

At this point, Lauretti said not much is certain in the process of finalizing the state’s budget or the potential effects of not having one in place by the governor’s October deadline.

“I don’t think anyone has any idea of anything, other than the people in Hartford don’t know how to manage their money,” said Lauretti. “It’s a gross mismanagement of government.”

This late in the fiscal year without a state budget, Perillo said “the governor has made it clear that he would like to slash and burn municipal aid.”

Perillo admits that although he doesn’t agree with the governor’s plan to cut municipal funding or the shifting of funds from wealthier towns into poorer ones, “It’s a good negotiating tactic.”

“By making this announcement the governor has made it very real to legislators who now have to go back to their boards of education, some of whom that are going to be shorted millions of dollars, so that puts pressure on House and Senate Democrats to put together a budget that does not have those cuts,” said Perillo. “That pressure is a good thing. The governor is hoping that it will force the Democratic legislators to negotiate.”

What are our options?

With just over a month left for legislators to reach a consensus on a state budget, Perillo offered some insight as to what he speculates to have caused the delay.

“The reason we still do not have a budget is because Republicans have made it clear they will not support a budget with tax increases or that cuts municipal aid. Democrats have not been able to put together a budget without tax increases and that does not slash municipal aid,” said Perillo. “The reality is the Democrats always had the votes to pass budgets like they’ve proposed, but what has eroded for them over the past eight years are their numbers. When I was first elected there were 44 Republicans in the House of Representatives. 10 years later, there are now 72 and there are 79 Democrats. Historically the Democratic speaker could lose 15 or 20 Democratic members on a vote and still pass. Now, he can only lose three and there are some fiscally moderate Democrats who will not support tax increases.”

Perillo explained that just as House Republicans have rejected the governor’s proposal, the Democrats have also rejected a possible alternative that they developed.

“The proposal we made featured no cuts to Shelton education or tax increase,” said Perillo. “We proposed changes to state employee benefits that exist outside of their contract, that would save us hundreds of millions of dollars. But, Democrats are not on board. Cuts to municipal aid would only lead to increase in property taxes.”

When Perillo was asked about the potential Democratic members that the speaker could lose on a vote to approve their alternative, he said he was confident that they would support the Republican plan.

“This is why the speaker has not allowed a vote, he can’t risk it,” said Perillo.

Dr. Clouet described the state’s current budget situation as very troubling and said although he hasn’t had the opportunity review either proposal, he speculates that the Democratic party rejected the Republicans’ alternative for a reason. He clarified that the proposal could have included “serious changes or the elimination of collective bargaining.”

Neither proposal was available for review as of Tuesday evening.

‘The school district as we know it would no longer exist’

Clouet said he’s followed this year’s budget process especially close. He’s met with Perillo, Lauretti and the teacher’s union; all of whom view the governor’s proposal as unfair and extremely detrimental to the student's’ education.

“If we were to actually receive the projected amount of cuts to ECS funding the school district as we know it would no longer exist,” said Clouet. “This is not hyperbole, this is not me trying to scare people or being hyperbolic. That level of cut would force us to cut a lot of things that we do for kids and they deserve.”

Clouet said even a marginal cut to the district’s state funding would hinder its education.

“We would end up increasing a class size to a size that would not benefit the students, especially for the kids who need extra help and deserve that extra help,” said Clouet. “While some districts may have ‘excess fat’ or extra people that might not be necessary, we over the years have run a very trim budget, one of the lowest-funded districts in the state and we still do great work with that, so to take a hit like that here means we would be reducing what other districts take for granted.

“Our kids deserve to have art, our kids deserve to have sports, our kids deserve to have band, our kids deserve to have courses that teach them coding just like other kids do. We’re entering the mid and they will be entering the late 21st Century and we have an obligation to prepare them for that.”

Lauretti said expecting the board of education to make up for the nearly six-million-dollar cuts would be unreasonable, and he is sticking by his previous stance of districts not being required to follow all of the set mandates.

“I would suggest that if they’re taking all of their money from us that we shouldn’t follow the mandates. The mandates are just so costly and unproductive, but they just won’t recognize that and there’s a lot of them,” said Lauretti.

Clouet agreed to an extent.

“Some of the mandates are federal, and one of the most expensive mandates by nature is to provide the special education students what they deserve. With that said, I agree with the mayor that some of the mandated items are something that we need to review,” Clouet said. “If we were to cease funding, I would like to review what our obligation is to follow these mandates.I would want to review the mandates, mandate by mandate, to see what the impact would be on the children.  Some of them are reasonable, they are things we would do anyway, so the fact that it’s a mandate doesn’t make us do things for kids like offer physical education so the kids can be fit.”

Despite so much uncertainty at the state level, Clouet said the Shelton community can rest knowing that the Board of Ed has the kids best interest in mind.

“We are committed to doing what’s best for kids with the resources that are available and they should feel comfortable with that, but at the same time, that this is the time to be an activist,” said Clouet. “It’s time to make your voice heard, whether you’re a high school student or a parent, this is the time.”