Groton should modify education cuts and fight for fair funding from Hartford

The steep cuts in state aid demanded of Groton under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget proposal are unreasonable and unfair. Facing that potential reduction in state aid, the Town Council has in turn made unreasonable demands on the education system, leaving parents worried about the quality of education their children can expect and town officials pitted one against the other.

While the council is in a difficult position — it is trying to address the potential loss of state aid without passing along a massive property tax increase — it should retreat from the draconian cuts that it has asked the Board of Education to absorb.

It was welcome news to hear Superintendent Michael Graner express optimism Thursday about the potential for reaching a compromise that would restore half the funds cut. The community should support the move.

Town officials should unite and direct their energy toward Hartford and demand that the legislature, in acting on Malloy’s budget, significantly modify the fiscal sacrifice asked of Groton. The Malloy administration should acknowledge that the funding formula it devised to parcel out state aid for education does not fairly apply when serving Groton and its many military families.

This past November, Groton voters turned out of office two Republican freshmen state representatives and put the 40th and 41st districts back in the hands of Democrats. The thanks from the Democratic governor was to slam Groton with the proposed cut in state funding. Rep. Christine Conley and Rep. Joseph de la Cruz need to become far more vocal and visible in protesting Malloy’s attack on Groton.

It is clear where freshman state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, stands — opposed. She’s expressed confidence that the legislature will moderate the cuts. With the Senate evenly split between the two major parties, 18-18, Somers could yet play a big role in how the budget plays out.

But as newly elected Democrats in a district that has swung between parties, the two state representatives are positioned to get the ear of the Democratic majority leadership in the House and of the administration.

Town Manager Mark Oefinger has proposed to the council a $125.1 million budget that assumes the town would lose $5 million in state revenue in the coming fiscal year. It would require a 15.4 percent hike in the tax rate, $500 more annually for a home assessed at $150,000.

That $5 million figure assumes the cuts will not be as deep as Malloy proposed. A worst-case scenario, according to the town manager, would be a $13.3 million loss in state aid and a 26 percent increase in the tax rate.

The Town Council, rejecting the thought of a double-digit tax rate increase, has begun its budget cutting by taking aim at education, trimming the school board’s budget request by nearly 7 percent, a $5.2 million cut.

Graner, in identifying $4.5 million in cuts so far, has shown how devastating such a dramatic reduction in support for schools would be. It would mean the closing of Pleasant Valley Elementary School and laying off 70 people, including about 40 teachers and 25 support staff. That would mean large class sizes and less help for the teachers in those classrooms.

Sports and other extracurricular activities would also suffer.

The council should reconsider the size of that cut. Yes, if efforts to turn the tide in Hartford are not successful it could mean higher taxes, but the residents are indicating by their anger that they don’t want to see their schools decimated.

In providing state aid for education, the new formula used by Malloy calculates wealth levels in a community in part on student enrollment in the Husky insurance program, instead of the number of students receiving free or reduced lunches, as is now the measure. One-quarter of Groton students, about 1,000 children, are ineligible for the Husky program because they are military dependents. Yet enlisted personnel on modest incomes head many of these households.

The public awaits the alternative budget proposal from Republicans in the legislature. The minority party has an opportunity to divide and conquer. If they can come up with an alternative approach to addressing the state’s budget problems without big cuts to Groton and other communities, they could well peel off some Democratic votes.

Can Groton be run more efficiently? Absolutely. This newspaper has long argued that the community of 40,000 people, with its separate city and town governments, multiple police and public works departments, needs to work toward consolidation of services. Groton can and must do better.

But the steep and sudden cuts pushed in the Malloy budget cannot be absorbed in the change of a single fiscal year. Groton officials of both parties need to resist and to be smart about it.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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