Some towns would fare better than others under governor's plan

State Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, stands to applaud the proposal by Gov. Malloy to expand pre-kindergarten programs in the state Thursday during Malloy's budget address. Go online at www.theday.com to see a photo gallery from the opening day of the 2014 state legislature's session.
State Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, stands to applaud the proposal by Gov. Malloy to expand pre-kindergarten programs in the state Thursday during Malloy's budget address. Go online at www.theday.com to see a photo gallery from the opening day of the 2014 state legislature's session. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

Local officials applauded the governor's proposal to boost funding for preschool enrollment, but adjustments to payments in lieu of taxes to municipalities would benefit some towns in southeastern Connecticut more than others.

While many municipal aid grants would remain the same in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed fiscal year 2015 state budget, the governor proposed increasing payments in lieu of taxes for municipalities that host nonprofit hospitals and colleges. New London would receive about a $331,000 increase and Norwich a $61,000 increase, according to a spreadsheet released Thursday with the budget proposal.

But when taking into account changes in other revenue streams from the state, Norwich would see a net loss in state funding of $41,000.

The state budget has three categories of municipal aid: PILOT funds for state-owned properties, PILOT funds for municipalities that host nonprofit hospitals and colleges, and revenue from the so-called Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund.

Norwich also would see a decrease (about $119,000) in PILOT funds for state-owned properties and an increase in the casino fund (about $17,000).

New London would fare well under the proposal.

"Our PILOT funds have traditionally been underfunded compared to what we would be entitled to under existing state statute," said New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, who attended Malloy's State of the State address. "But the fact that the governor is making an effort to getting us closer to the mark and increasing the funding coming to the city to account for properties that we have in the city that do not pay taxes is a very good move on the governor's part and will be a tremendous relief to municipalities."

The amount of PILOT money that New London receives for state-owned properties would decrease by about $34,000, but revenue from the casino fund would increase by about $22,000. Those changes combined with the $331,000 increase would give New London a net increase of more than $300,000.

"The PILOT funds all come in for different reasons but they all are general revenue streams," Finizio said. "The net effect that the revenue stream goes up is a very good thing for the city of New London."

Finizio said Malloy has "made tremendous efforts throughout his tenure to be an engaged partner with the city of New London," and attributed his support to the fact that Malloy served for 14 years as the mayor of Stamford.

"I think the governor has made it a priority to help municipalities, as opposed to passing the burden off to municipalities like has been done in other states," he said. "This is a governor that understands municipalities are on the front line, we're where the rubber meets the road, and we need the state to work with us."

More pre-K slots

Malloy also proposed state funding to increase pre-kindergarten statewide by 1,020 slots next year and expand to 4,000 slots by 2019. Malloy proposed a combination of grants to towns to add pre-kindergarten and "a much-needed" rate increase to school readiness providers, child care centers, and Care-for-Kids programs.

"It's encouraging to see Gov. Malloy advocating for the statewide expansion of universal preschool education," Preston Superintendent John Welch said. "It's the right thing to do and the right time to do it."

The Preston Board of Education will review Welch's 2014-15 budget proposal Monday. It contains about $200,000 to open full-day pre-kindergarten to the estimated 39 eligible 4-year-olds.

New London participates in a pre-kindergarten program with the Friendship School in Waterford and also works cooperatively with pre-kindergarten programs in the area, said Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer. He said pre-kindergarten offers tremendous educational value in providing students with school readiness, as well as early socialization, literacy and gross and fine motor skills.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to see what skills children have," said Fischer, adding that such programs can also offer health screenings, test students on their motor skills, and determine if children are getting adequate nutrition.

He said pre-kindergarten is a great idea, but the long-term issue for the state is how to sustain it financially. He said his sense - having spoken with other superintendents in the state - is there needs to be a way to build it into the state's funding stream beyond initial grants.

"I think the challenge is, if Connecticut as a state is serious about it, it needs to be built into the ECS (Education Cost Sharing) formula," Fischer said.

Norwich uses a variety of programs and funding sources to offer pre-kindergarten to 279 students citywide. There are waiting lists for students who don't get into these programs, Superintendent Abby Dolliver said.

She would be interested in expanding the program and would use state funding to hire needed staff. The school system also would need to make space for any additional pre-kindergarten classrooms. The Bishop Early Learning Center is full with 226 students.

"If we have more opportunities, we would certainly grow in that area," Dolliver said.

Norwich's John B. Stanton School used additional Network School reform funding from the state to launch full-day kindergarten last year. The expansion of kindergarten and pre-kindergarten for Stanton students has meant "marked improvement" in student performance, Dolliver said.

East Lyme Superintendent James Lombardo said an expansion of pre-kindergarten would require funding for high-quality programs with well-trained staff. He said he sees it as a better investment than putting state funds toward student testing and the teacher evaluation system.

Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser said the district sees a high percentage of students who come to kindergarten with a preschool experience either from the district's collaborative program or other local programs.

Pre-kindergarten can offer important social benefits, but it needs to be a good fit for the student, he said.

"It really depends on the individual child and the program as well," he said.

k.drelich@theday.com

c.young@theday.com

c.bessette@theday.com

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