New London educators applaud judge's indictment of state education funding system

Former and current New London educators on Wednesday lauded a Superior Court judge for a ruling that dubs the state’s method of distributing education aid “irrational” and calls for sweeping reforms in part to address inequities in funding to the state’s school districts.

The ruling comes 11 years after the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education first filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force the state to replace its education funding system and make schools less dependent on local property taxes.

New London, along with five other underfunded and underperforming school districts, was involved in the suit from the start under former Superintendent Christopher Clouet, a founding member of the coalition.

Clouet, who is now the superintendent in Shelton, said it was an issue of importance in New London and other districts where education budget crafting was a contentious process — unfairly pitting educators asking for modest spending increases against residents who were rightfully looking to draw a line on tax hikes.

He said Wednesday’s ruling was gratifying.

“I think it’s a system that is broken,” Clouet said. “It relies too heavily on local property taxes and that becomes a burden on local taxpayers. I think what it really boils down to is the system of financing education in Connecticut doesn’t make sense.”

Included among the original plaintiffs in the suit was Maria Santiago of New London, and her daughter, Carimarie Colon, 6, a student at the now closed Edgerton School.

Santiago, who was a teacher at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, had testified how annual budget cuts had reduced art, music and technology offerings, increased class sizes and eliminated or threatened programs essential to teaching English.

They have since left the city and were removed from the suit.

New London High School Principal Tommy Thompson, during the last school year, provided two days of testimony on behalf of the New London school system, which was still an active participant in the suit.

Thompson, in a written statement Wednesday, said the educational funding system in Connecticut is “not adequate and certainly not equitable.”

“For a town where 50 percent or more of the property is tax exempt, it’s no secret that funding education has always been a challenge and would continue to be so with the existing formula,” Thompson said. “The current formula ignores hardships faced by New London’s taxpayers and is inequitable in helping educators meet the needs of students.”

The state now uses the Educational Cost Sharing formula to provide aid to schools with the brunt of education costs going directly to taxpayers in the school district.

The Educational Cost Sharing formula was a reaction to a 1977 state Supreme Court decision that found public education to be a state responsibility and ruled unconstitutional a system that relies on local property taxes without regard to varying municipal wealth.

The state distributed about $2 billion in funding last year.

Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher, in Wednesday’s ruling, said that to be constitutional, the state’s chief education policies do not have to be richly funded but they must be “at least rational, substantial, and verifiable.”

“Requiring at least a substantially rational plan for education is a problem in this state because many of our most important policies are so befuddled or misdirected as to be irrational,” Moukawsher wrote. “They lack real and visible links to things known to meet children’s needs."

"For instance," he wrote, "the state spends billions of dollars on schools without any binding principles guaranteeing that educational aid goes where it’s needed. During the recent budget crisis, this left rich schools robbing millions of dollars from poor schools.”

Moukawsher gave the legislature 180 days to revise the state’s system of state aid. He has also called for improvements to teacher evaluations.

Thompson said the ruling is an opportunity to reduce the achievement gap.

“I’m encouraged that Judge Moukawsher recognizes that the state not only needs to rethink funding, but also practices and systems that will yield better results for Connecticut’s children,” he wrote.

Current New London School Superintendent Manuel Rivera said the city’s transformation into a magnet school district, and the boost in funding that goes with it, will help the district’s students achieve higher levels of performance.

Those funds, he said in an emailed response, go directly to supporting the continued growth and development of each state-approved magnet pathway.

“However, magnet funds cannot be used to supplant the City’s responsibility to fund public education, and only a fraction of that magnet revenue source can be used for certain administrative services,” Rivera said. “My hope and expectation is that we would benefit from a new funding plan...”

Rivera said, however, it would likely take months or longer before there is any final resolution that results in more funds for underfunded school districts.

“I know, at this moment, that without any additional revenues on the horizon, that we will have to reduce our budget by several million dollars, and that is a very difficult challenge to overcome,” Rivera said.

g.smith@theday.com

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