Bridgeport Legislators Seek Settlement In Education Funding Case
Coalition That Sued Over Education Cost-Sharing In State Wants Malloy's Help
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
December 16, 2010
HARTFORD — — Bridgeport legislators on Thursday began a campaign to pressure Gov.-elect Dan Malloy to negotiate a settlement in a 5-year-old lawsuit that calls for overhauling the way the state pays for its public schools.
At the core of the suit, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Gov. M. Jodi Rell, is the argument that the state's existing education cost-sharing formula is a broken system that places the burden on local property taxes to support school spending. In turn, plaintiffs contend, the system has led to inequity among school systems that can afford to pay, stoking the state's achievement gap.
The lawsuit, which seeks more state dollars for education, was filed in late 2005 by a group of school and city leaders around Connecticut that included Malloy, then the Democratic mayor of Stamford.
Now that Malloy is weeks away from being sworn in as governor, the coalition said it is time to push for a resolution that can have a major impact on all school systems.
The lawsuit is projected to go to trial around 2014, and beyond that would likely be appealed for years — too late, coalition supporters said Thursday, for students who are now languishing in underfunded classrooms.
During a press conference at the state Capitol, Dianne Kaplan deVries, the coalition's project director, made sure to thank Malloy but also warn him. "He was one of the first mayors to sign on to this coalition when it was being formed in early 2004, and he served on our steering committee during his tenure as Stamford mayor. …"
"Ironically enough," deVries said, "now he's poised to become a named defendant in this lawsuit."
Malloy, who has pledged not to cut school aid funding next year, said through a spokeswoman that he will consider the request for a settlement. Malloy added that he was "uniquely aware" of the difficulties as "a former mayor who has struggled with the cost of funding education after the state has failed to meet its obligations."
Estimates for fulfilling that obligation have ranged from an extra $1 billion to $2 billion annually. A progressive income tax and an increase to the sales tax have been mentioned as potential ways to reorganize school financing — ideas the state legislature so far has been loath to pursue.
In 1977, a landmark state Supreme Court decision in the case Horton v. Meskill called for a 50-50 split in state and local spending to fund schools. Over the years, however, the state's funding average has dipped to roughly 38 percent.
Then in March, a divided court gave a victory to the coalition when it ruled 4-3 that schoolchildren are guaranteed not only a public education under the state constitution, but one that is "adequate" enough to prepare students for college or to otherwise "contribute to the state's economy."
Justices did not suggest any changes to the existing funding system, though, and passed the case down to Superior Court for a trial.
The state currently pays $1.9 billion a year in education cost-sharing grants to municipalities through a complicated formula that seems to satisfy few.
A town such as West Hartford, for example, received about $13.7 million in ECS funding for its school board's current $126.7 million budget. Officials there have complained for years that the state is skimping on the funds.
In impoverished Bridgeport, where state funds — including the ECS grant — made up about $161 million of the city's $216 million schools budget in the last fiscal year, Democrats said Thursday that students still lack basic learning tools, such as up-to-date school computers.
The city's legislators also introduced Angel Pizarro, a sophomore at Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport, who stated, matter-of-factly, that profanities have been scrawled on his textbook pages by students who had lost interest in learning.
"We need new books," said Angel, 15, a plaintiff in the suit.
State Rep. Christopher Caruso, D-Bridgeport, said his city's delegation would send a formal letter to Malloy requesting settlement negotiations after the governer-elect takes office Jan. 5.
Other coalition members include Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, Bloomfield, Torrington, Windsor Locks, Southington, Coventry, Plainville, Mansfield, Newtown, Old Saybrook and Simsbury. A legal advocacy clinic at Yale University is representing the coalition at no cost.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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