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School Finance Battle Ahead

Lawsuit To Demand Sharp Spending Hike

November 4, 2005

A coalition of municipal officials and educators plans to go to court this month seeking to force Connecticut to dramatically increase spending on education and revamp the way it pays for public schools.

The group says it will file a lawsuit in Superior Court in Hartford Nov. 22, nearly three decades after another suit, Horton vs. Meskill, radically altered Connecticut's school finance system.

The proposed lawsuit comes as Gov. M. Jodi Rell is about to convene a task force to review Connecticut's 15-year-old school funding system, a complicated formula known as the Education Cost Sharing grant, which will distribute more than $1.6 billion to cities and towns this year.

The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding hopes the lawsuit will pressure the state to revise a school funding formula it regards as inadequate. The suit will contend that the formula has driven up local property taxes in many communities and forced towns to cut back on everything from police services to street repairs.

"The state continues to underfund education. We know what the level [of support] should be," said Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez, the coalition's vice president.

Fifteen years ago, the state paid nearly 46 percent of the cost of running public schools, but that figure dropped to about 38 percent by 2003-04.

The coalition of mayors and other officials issued a study earlier this year projecting that the state would have to spend as much as $2 billion a year more to bring students up to the federal government's academic standards.

Hartford alone comes up more than $100 million short of a final target, the study said.

"All that shows is how far behind we are as a state," Perez said.

The lawsuit is certain to raise concerns among state officials about the potential cost of a court ruling.

"I had assumed all along the mayors of large cities ... would do everything in their power to strap [state] taxpayers with an additional billion-dollar burden," said state Sen. Thomas J. Herlihy, R-Avon, and a member of the legislature's education committee.

"We're all interested in doing as much as we can for schools," he said, "but throwing another billion dollars at schools when there is zero accountability for results seems to me to be the wrong way to go."

Similar school funding lawsuits exist in various stages in 23 other states, said Molly A. Hunter, an official with the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a New York City-based advocacy group that monitors school funding cases.

The advocacy group filed its own lawsuit, which resulted in a court ruling earlier this year ordering New York state to spend an extra $5.6 billion a year on New York City schools. The state is appealing the order.

In Kansas, lawmakers approved a $148 million school spending increase earlier this year in response to a state Supreme Court order to boost education funding.

While many school finance lawsuits in the 1970s and '80s focused on inequity among school districts, much of the litigation now revolves around whether states provide schools adequate funding to meet demands such as new standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In Connecticut, the coalition's proposed suit seeks an "adequacy formula" that takes into account each district's particular needs, including the proportion of children who live in poverty, do not speak English or have disabilities, said Robert A. Solomon, a Yale University law professor who heads a team preparing the lawsuit.

Solomon said the 60-plus-page lawsuit will include two plaintiffs from rural towns, two from suburbs and two from cities. "If you accept the notion that the state is responsible for equal education, it affects every town," he said. "If you accept the notion that kids are not performing at a proficiency standard, it affects every town."

The Yale team is providing free legal services to the coalition. An earlier school finance lawsuit against the state was filed in 1998, but dropped two years ago because of mounting legal costs.

According to the study commissioned by the coalition, 145 of the state's 166 school districts come up short of a recommended funding target, while 91 fail to meet even a minimum starting point. In Hartford, for example, schools would have to spend $16,720 a pupil to meet the long-range goals of No Child Left Behind, a 38 percent increase over the $12,150 spent per student a year ago, the report said. Manchester would require $13,974 a student and Meriden $14,694 - increases of 43 and 44 percent, respectively.

Coalition representatives already have been in discussions with the governor and legislature and have said they hope the issue can be settled without a court order.

"If anything, I hope [the suit] is the carrot that makes things happen," said Manchester Mayor Stephen T. Cassano, the coalition's executive director. "We can withdraw the suit at any time. Our immediate goal is to work with the governor's office and the legislature."

Cassano is expected to be given a spot on the governor's task force on school finance, said Judd Everhart, a spokesman for Rell. The governor will send out letters next week announcing appointments to the task force, Everhart said.

Connecticut's school funding formula underwent a major change after the state Supreme Court in 1977 ordered the state, in the Horton vs. Meskill case, to close a large funding gap between the state's wealthiest and poorest communities.

The case redistributed state money, sending millions of dollars more to the state's poorest cities.

The legislature revised the school aid formula with the introduction of the Education Cost Sharing grant in 1989, but lawmakers have imposed limits on the formula under the strain of tight state budgets.

Those limits have prevented the formula from working as intended and could be a key piece of the legal argument challenging the current school finance system, said Wesley Horton, the lawyer who filed the Horton vs. Meskill case.

Horton, who has no connection to the new coalition, said the coalition's case will be more subtle than the earlier case because "there is not the gross disparity [among towns] you had in the 1970s."

He said he believes a judge would be reluctant to tamper directly with the formula. But, he said, "once the legislature has created a formula, you've got to let it work."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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