New London school cut was unnecessary

The decision by the New London City Council to slash $4.2 million from the school budget for the current fiscal year, a roughly 10 percent reduction, was ill conceived, needless and unsettling.

Yet it was also somewhat understandable given the confusion and uncertainty emanating from Hartford because of the failure of the General Assembly to enact a budget that can win Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's signature. Perhaps that will happen sooner than later, with news Wednesday of a possible budget deal.

And in the end there is unlikely to be any cut to New London education spending, and perhaps even an increase in state aid.

The council acted on the fears of Mayor Michael Passero in passing the budget cut. The mayor is concerned that if the city commits to education funding, then sees state aid for education cut when the state finally adopts a budget, New London will be facing its own fiscal crisis.

So better to make the cut now, then restore the money if the legislature comes through with the state aid, as expected. So went the thinking.

Even as the council stunned parents with the decision, in the process rejecting the pleas of school supporters in attendance at the Monday meeting not to do it, they sought to calm nerves.

Council Finance Committee Chairwoman Martha Marx said the council would probably later reallocate the money, or at least most of it, after the state approved a budget. Mayor Passero was quoted as saying the reduction was, in effect, "not real."

Nerves were not calmed. And at a time when New London is trying to persuade the parents of children in surrounding towns to consider sending little Melinda and Aaron to the city's magnet schools, it does not help.

Most disconcertingly, none of the state budgets proposed  — not the governor's various spending plans, not the deal he worked out with fellow Democrats in the legislature, and the not the Republican alternative that won adoption only to face a Malloy veto — cut aid to New London schools.

What appears to have panicked Passero and the all-Democratic council was documentation that the Republican budget — the one adopted and then vetoed — would have reduced the Education Cost Sharing grant to New London from $25.8 million to $20.8 million, a $5 million hit.

ECS money flows to towns and cities, and then is passed through to fund education. Facing such a potential cut, Passero said the council had to pass along a reduction to the school board.

But here's the thing. The Republican budget called for transferring special education funding out of the ECS grant and distribute it as a Special Education grant, with new allocation criteria. Add in the Special Education grant, and funding to the city for education increases from $25.8 million to about $29 million.

Now, to be fair, Benjamin Barnes, secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, said the Republican budget left it unclear how the state would allocate the Special Education grant. Barnes said it his expectation that it would flow through the city to the school budget, just as the ECS grant. And if the approach in the Republican budget made it into a final budget signed by the governor, the administration would insist on language to clarify that the state would handle the new Special Education allocation just as it does the ECS grants, Barnes said.

In the end, this will probably end up being "not real" and the council will rescind the cut, just as Marx said she expected it would. But it was an unnecessary exercise, and not one other towns are repeating. Passero said he was trying to be prudent. Perhaps in this case to a fault.

Everyone will be better off when the state has a budget in place and policy decisions based on conjectures, guesses and assumptions can end.

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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