In absence of state budget, Groton education officials wait and worry

The Groton school district has been adjusting to the $3 million cut to the Board of Education-approved budget and the cost-saving closure of Pleasant Valley Elementary — and that's not even factoring in the fiscal uncertainty around Connecticut not having a state budget.

Groton Education Association President Beth Horler said that if Education Cost Sharing from the state is slashed, on the table are "extremely large class sizes," fewer supplies, cuts to middle school sports, deferred maintenance projects and elimination of pre-kindergarten.

"We teach our students to work together, to compromise and to make informed decisions," said Horler, a kindergarten teacher. "It seems our state leadership could learn a thing or two from our students."

Horler was one of several speakers at a call to action held outside Francis T. Maloney High School in Meriden on Tuesday morning, following Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell's back-to-school address.

The "Show of Concern" was held by the What Will Our Children Lose Coalition, which includes members of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, Connecticut Association of School Business Officials, Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents and Connecticut Association of Schools.

Also at the rally was Groton Superintendent Michael Graner, who told The Day last week that "there's no way we could operate the schools" with the $16.57 million cut to Education Cost Sharing for Groton that Gov. Dannel Malloy laid out in his June 30 Executive Order Resource Allocation Plan.

Absent a state budget, the plan details a $505.84 million cut to ECS funding across the state.

Graner said Groton factored in an ECS cut of only $5 million, and dollar-wise, the town has a lot more to lose than other districts in southeastern Connecticut. The next-largest cuts to ECS from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018 would be to Colchester at $7.96 million, East Lyme at $6.92 million and Ledyard at $5.86 million.

While Groton would lose 66.17 percent of its funding, East Lyme's cut is 100 percent.

The two local districts that got more ECS money than Groton last year, Norwich and New London, are respectively looking at a $1.07 million cut and an $814,052 gain; New London is the only municipality in southeastern Connecticut gaining money under the allocation plan.

"The reason for the allocation plan is we have a constitutional requirement that we provide a free education," Malloy told The Day's editorial board on Monday. "That's a lot easier in Waterford than it is in New London. That's just the reality."

Asked if Groton should be nervous, Malloy said that Groton's equalized net grand list per capita is $136,941 while that figure is $67,000 for New London, as of 2016. He added that student population in Groton has shrunk by 9.44 percent since 2011 while it has grown in New London by 12.78 percent.

There was no formula for the distribution plan, Malloy said. He added that he is rethinking the initial allocation plan to reflect that some communities are better positioned to provide free public education than others, and the governor said he will put out a new allocation plan by the end of the month.

Speaking to The Day last week, Graner pushed back on how wealth is determined in Groton.

He said that if wealth is measured by property, Groton "comes out as a pretty affluent place, because of EB and Pfizer." But measuring wealth by per-capita income, he said, shows that "there are thousands of people in Groton who are living below the poverty line."

According to an issue brief from the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research, town wealth is measured 90 percent by property income and 10 percent by personal income.

Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents Executive Director Fran Rabinowitz said at the show of support on Tuesday, "I think our superintendents and our administrators and teachers were patient into July, but in August it really makes a difference for a school district to know what dollars are coming from the state to them."

She said that in response to a survey in which 30 districts said they had more than 400 positions that were either on hold or cut due to the lack of a state budget.

But Malloy spokeswoman Meg Green said in a statement, "We have been clear that municipalities should not make assumptions about their level of education funding in the absence of an adopted biennial budget."

She also agreed with the urgency for schools and students, saying the allocation plan was not Malloy's preference, "but unfortunately, the legislature did not elect to take up the mini-budget that would have made drastic cuts to municipalities less severe."

e.moser@theday.com

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