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Malloy says he'll veto weak education reform bill; city, town funds in jeopardy

Published April 12. 2012 6:06PM   Updated April 13. 2012 10:34AM

Hartford — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is reaching out to city mayors to ratchet up pressure on state lawmakers to restore controversial reforms to his education bill.

The governor met Thursday in the Capitol with nearly two dozen mayors, including Daryl Justin Finizio of New London and Peter Nystrom of Norwich.

Malloy asked the mayors to speak with their local legislators about restoring S.B. 24, his education bill that emerged from the legislature's Education Committee late last month in a scaled-back form without his teacher tenure overhaul and without a robust school turnaround program.

The revised legislation still contains nearly $40 million in state education funds for certain municipalities.

Malloy told the mayors that if the General Assembly passes a diluted bill this spring that isn't "a meaningful education reform package," he would veto it.

That scenario could bring headaches to cities and towns across the state. For New London, a bill veto could mean the loss of an expected $809,000 that is already built into Finizio's proposed $87 million city budget. For Norwich, it would mean a loss of $1 million.

"They should not be depending on this money," Malloy said at an afternoon news conference following his meeting with Finizio, Nystrom, and 20 other mayors. "I think this money is very much in the lurch until we have an education bill we can agree on."

In an interview in the Capitol's ornate "Hall of Flags," Finizio said the potential loss of school funding would deliver a significant blow to his budget, which already calls for a 20 percent tax increase.

So he is taking the governor at his word, and will advise city council members and the school board that $809,000 in state funds might not materialize next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

"As of right now, we must act under the assumption that no funds are coming," Finizio said.

Nystrom said there are positives and negatives for Norwich in the governor's education proposal, but overall, he sees a benefit of increased and sustained education support from the state.

On the benefits side, Norwich would receive an additional $1 million. But Malloy's initial plan also required the city to pay $1,000 for each student attending local charter schools. That $1,000 payment became optional in the scaled-back bill.

"(I) don't agree with giving $1,000 to the charter school, but it is not a significant part of the bill to get hung up on," Nystrom said, noting the 271 Norwich children at the Integrated Day Charter School.

Finizio said he is in complete agreement with Malloy's education stance.

"I believe his initial proposal was a good one," he said. "I was not satisfied with the bill that came out of the Education Committee. I understand fully why the governor would veto it.

"We all want and need more funding, but more funding alone is not going to solve the problem. We also need more reform, more innovation and more accountability."

The New London mayor left the statehouse Thursday with some marching orders. In a lighthearted farewell to Finizio, a former boxer, Malloy smiled and curled his fists and made a quick jabbing motion.

"Just got to bump her up," the governor said, before a room full of mayors and news reporters.

Finizio recalled his send-off with a smile: "That's right, I got my instructions."

The instructions call for Finizio to contact state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, co-chairman of the committee that diluted Malloy's reform bill. Finizio said he will attempt some friendly persuasion — not literal pugilism.

"The governor knows that I'm a former boxer and he thought I might be able to put some of those skills to use," Finizio said, "But of course, all in jest."

When the education bill was before her committee, Stillman opted to delay a decision on the governor's teacher tenure overhaul to allow more time for the introduction of a new teacher evaluation system.

She also signed off on changes that scaled back a proposed "Commissioner's Network" program that would have given Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor broad authority to reorganize 25 low-performing schools.

Stillman remains an active participant in group discussions on the bill's re-crafting. On Thursday, she was in the Capitol two floors above Malloy and the mayors during their news conference, meeting with Democratic leaders about the bill.

"I understand the governor doesn't like the bill as it came out of committee," she said. "What we're continuing to do is talk."

Stillman stressed that the legislation still contains the nearly $40 million in education funds that Malloy initially proposed. "The money is still in the bill, and as far as I know it's still in the budget," she said. "It might be crafted a little differently, but the dollars are there."

Stillman said she anticipates a different version of the legislation by the end of this year's legislative session.

"I'm confident that by the time May 9 rolls around, we'll have a bill that I think all sides can live with," she said.

She also said she is awaiting Finizio's call.

"He will, at some point I hope, reach out to me, so he can explain to me why the bill that's come out of committee is a problem for New London," Stillman said. "I have not heard that from the school board or the superintendent."

Staff Writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report.

j.reindl@theday.com

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