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Knapp, Llodra Testify On ESC Concerns, Entice OPM Secretary To Visit Newtown



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Following separate testimonies at the State Capitol March 1, First Selectman Pat Llodra and Legislative Councilman Ryan Knapp confirmed that Ben Barnes, secretary of the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management (OPM), would be coming to Newtown, March 15, to appear before the full council.

Mr Barnes, who was invited by Mrs Llodra, will presumably be addressing budget-related concerns and taking questions from local officials as the state and town both proceed through their annual budget processes.

In their testimony before the General Assembly, Mrs Llodra, who was accompanied by Senator Tony Hwang, and Mr Knapp, accompanied by Representative J.P. Sredzinski, both railed against proposed reductions in Newtown's Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grants. If the ECS allocation formula is adopted as proposed, the town would see funding plummet from $5,080,129 in 2017, to $969,688 the following year - a difference of $4,110,441, which would fall on local property owners to make up.

Mr Knapp told The Newtown Bee shortly after his testimony than Mr Barnes agreed to attend the upcoming council meeting. As local officials here wind through the annual budget process, the prospect of a $4.1 million reduction in school district aid is looming ominously on the horizon. But local officials' frustrations are being exacerbated because of a lack of clarity in the governor's newly proposed ECS distribution formulary.

In early February, Governor Dannel P. Malloy released plans for redistributing existing levels of state education aid in ways he said would help the most impoverished school districts, according to The Connecticut Mirror. His plan overhauls the highly criticized ECS formula by changing how student poverty is determined and creating a grant pool of roughly $575 million to help towns pay for special education.

The new pool of money - for educating physically or developmentally disabled students - would be funded almost entirely by redirecting nearly one-quarter of the $2 billion in state dollars that currently go toward the ECS grant and all of the so-called Excess Cost grant, which helps school districts pay for services for severely disabled students. Education aid for individual towns typically has been shielded from state cuts over the years, a so-called "hold harmless" provision that makes it politically easier to get a state budget through the legislature.

In his testimony, Mr Knapp acknowledged that he was sensitive to the struggles of urban districts, and wants to see every student get a great education.

"My father taught for years in Waterbury at North End Middle School," Mr Knapp told lawmakers. "I want to see all districts in Connecticut supported with a state budget that works for all of us, not a plan that would divide our local public schools."

He pointed out that Connecticut currently has an ECS formula in place from 2013 that was recommended by a Special Task Force and adopted by the legislature in Section 10-262f of the general statutes.

"It is well known that formula has not been followed and has been manipulated over time," Mr Knapp said. "That does not mean the formula does not work, rather it has never been given an opportunity to."

CCJEF Decision Mandate

Mr Knapp referenced a current legal appeal to the controversial CCJEF (CT Coalition for Justice in Education Funding) decision, and SB-2, which would require the legislature to develop a new ECS formula.

"I would contend that an ECS formula should originate with the legislature and not from the governor's office so that all parties are better represented in its creation," Mr Knapp said. "I question why the governor's proposal is touted as responsive to the CCJEF decision when the state is currently appealing said decision. Letting the legal process run its course should be reason enough to turn the focus back to the 2013 formula."

The local councilman said while the intention to help the urban districts is a noble one, the proposed budget is not the way to accomplish that goal. In testimony February 10 to the legislature's powerful Appropriations Committee, Mr Knapp noted that OPM Secretary Barnes acknowledged that "maybe there are other factors that we should include that we inappropriately left off." He also spoke of finding "ways to soften the blow" to communities most negatively impacted by this proposal.

"Both are legitimate concerns which have been raised in the testimony of others," Mr Knapp said. "This all feels like rushing to implement a new ECS formula without first giving the 2013 law more of an effort."

Since 2013, Mr Knapp said the state has never funded ECS at greater than 77 percent of the amount calculated under the formula.

"Rather than give each town 77 percent of their calculated grant, Newtown currently receives only 47 percent compared with [similar] communities that receive over 100 percent of their funding amount due under the statutory formula. Without clear transparency as to why, the reasons feel arbitrary and subjective," Mr Knapp said. "With the governor's proposed changes, Newtown would only receive nine percent of what we would be due under the formula implemented in 2013, while [other] districts in our DRG would receive over 100 percent of what was due under the prior formula. I question that, given the metrics for establishing poverty and the foundation number have changed from the recommendation of the 2013 Task Force."

Mr Knapp told lawmakers that he has no reason to believe that Newtown taxpayers could or would shoulder this increase.

"Town residents are not a monolith with every family earning the median household income," he said. "What does this proposal say to our less affluent neighbors that already struggle to live in our community? We have plenty of residents who live paycheck to paycheck. Does geography make it easier to shoulder a seven percent tax property tax increase? I worry that if we try to maintain our quality programming and staffing levels, our poorest will be taxed out of the district. The alternative is reductions, [which] may force towns to make cuts to education to compensate for the lost revenue."

In closing, Mr Knapp encouraged the Education Committee to review the 2013 ECS formula, seeing to its correct application, and working toward fairness by supporting bills like Representative Andy Fleischman's HB-6736 or Representative Mitch Bolinsky's similar HB-6830.

"Once that formula has been administered as intended, then it would appropriate to consider long-range adjustment with an implementation plan and an open dialogue," Mr Knapp said.

Llodra's Perspective

Mrs Llodra told the committee that Newtown stands with many other towns and cities across the state, "ready to face daunting challenges in trying to right the financial ship of state."

"I say 'we' because I fully accept that success will require a partnership engaging all of us in pursuit of a common goal," she said, adding that Newtown is poised to accept its rightful role in working toward that common goal.

"We might disagree, however, on what Newtown's role is - how much of the course correction we should bear and why," Mrs Llodra continued. "In discussions about funding for public schools, you will hear much about equity and about transparency. I agree with all of that. Fairness must lie at the very core of what we do, or we will lose the faith and trust of those we ask to pay the bill… the Connecticut taxpayer, the Newtown taxpayer."

Ahead of her trip to Hartford, Mrs Llodra told The Bee that her goal was to share with lawmakers and others what the impact of school funding proposals in the governor's budget would "look like on the streets and neighborhoods of Newtown."

She said, "Adding back in the difference between the loss of the excess cost grant offset [$1.3 million] and the new grant for special education [$2.4 million], the actual impact is approximately $3 million - on this one category alone. But this $3 million is just the beginning. Add to that the loss of about $900,000 if the mill rate on vehicles is capped, and the potential for $3.9 million in teacher [pension contributions], and we are then looking at a possible loss in funding of just about $7 million."

The first selectman said if the worst is realized, Newtown faces a tax increase of more than eight percent next year.

"That budget will never pass the voters and we will then begin that spiral of reductions in the spending plan to get to an acceptable level of taxation. The reductions will likely include teachers, police, public works department, and other staff; we may have to raid fund balance, or underfund our pension plan; compromise on issues of public safety; reduce hours at the library or at our parks; maybe not continue to repair our roads or bridges," she said.

"These actions may sound familiar to you - it is what the state has done to try to stay afloat - and it has not worked. In fact, our community of Newtown is built upon a set of core values including great schools, open space, recreation, public safety, and public services," Mrs Llodra continued. "Our spending plan is designed to preserve and enhance those values - we pay a dear tax to maintain that quality of life. But we cannot tax more - we know that.

"Our residents are tapped out, unwilling and unable to empty their pocketbooks any further. So our choices in Newtown, to ever get a budget passed that includes what the governor is recommending, is to erode the very attributes, the community qualities our residents have paid for," she said. "And then we are on that slippery slope, heading downhill."

Regarding the ECS formula specifically, Mrs Llodra called for lawmakers to "get there in a thoughtful, planful, careful way. Support the good practices and success of communities that are thriving and help toward success those who are struggling."

The first selectman, who previously worked for the State Department of Education and is an educator herself, came to the session armed with suggested adjustments to the ECS formula to achieve greater fairness and sensibility. She asked lawmakers to:

*Maintain the Foundation at Task Force recommended level: $11,525.

*Include FRL [free and reduced-price lunch] eligibility as a measure of student need.

*Not reduce the weighting for poverty measure from 30 to 20 percent.

*Add back consideration of English language learners.

*Establish a baseline of 30 percent as a minimum special education reimbursement percentage.

*Establish a baseline of minimum aid, even to the wealthiest of towns.

*Ensure fairness and equity throughout the distribution.

"Some have said that the governor's budget creates winners and losers," Mrs Llodra concluded. "I think if that budget proposal goes forth as is, then we all are losers."

Newtown Legislative Councilman Ryan Knapp, left, provides testimony to the Connecticut Legislature's Education Committee in Hartford, March 1, opposing proposed changes in distribution of Education Cost Sharing dollars that would reduce Newtown's allocation substantially. Mr Knapp was accompanied by State Representative J.P. Sredzinski.
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