By Kathy Megan
He’s often said that education is a top priority, but now some advocates are saying that the swipes Gov. Dannel P. Malloy made at higher education funding and the continued flat funding for schools districts could be a serious setback.
University of Connecticut officials said that Malloy’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 would leave them $40 million short of what they need to operate in the budget year that starts July 1. Similarly, the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities system would be $38 million short of its target.
Higher education administrators said that such reductions would require significant cuts and could lead to greater increases in tuition than planned.
“While we don’t yet know its full impact, this level of spending reduction will almost certainly require a significant increase in student tuition and changes to how [Connecticut State Colleges & Universities] conducts its operations,” said Gregory Gray, president of the CSCU system.
That said, Gray emphasized that he would try to keep the cuts “as far away from the students and the instructional process as possible.” But he added, “There’s a line there. We are getting very close to that line where we simply cannot operate in the way that we need to operate.”
A statement from University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst said that “managing a reduction of that size will necessitate deep and significant cuts throughout the university.”
On the budget proposal for primary and secondary school education, legislators say they were pleased that Malloy did not cut funding in the state’s education cost-sharing system, but they raised questions about the additional funding targeted for charter and magnet schools.
According to Malloy’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year, $36 million more would be allotted for 1,800 more seats in magnet schools and an additional $12 million would go for 1,250 new charter school seats. In addition, $7.9 million in fiscal year 2017 would go for an additional 612 charter seats.
The budget also includes a $4.7 million reduction in funding for low-performing schools targeted for additional resources through the Commissioner’s Network.
‘Doesn’t Quite Add Up’
Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, and co-chairman of the legislature’s education committee, said he was concerned that the budget has “significant increases for magnet schools and charters, but at the same time talks about level funding [in Education Cost Sharing] and reducing dollars for the Commissioner’s Network, which includes the state’s neediest schools. All of that doesn’t quite add up to me.”
Fleischmann said he would have to examine the budget in greater detail. “To the extent that we find additional dollars for education, it seems to me those dollars should be going to ECS first and foremost.”
Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, the co-chairwoman of the education committee, said: “It’s terrific that there aren’t cuts [in ECS funding], but on the other hand, to see the numbers increase so dramatically for non-traditional schools, but leave the schools where the majority of our kids are without additional funding is of concern to me.”
Jeffrey Villar, executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, said he was concerned that progress made by the state’s low-performing 30 Alliance Districts — also targeted for extra resources under the Malloy administration — would slide backward without an increase to reflect the districts’ increase in costs.
“The position I would take is that flat funding for the Alliance Districts represents between 2 [percent] and 3 percent in cuts because of the increase in costs they experience year over year,” Villar said.
He said the budget also includes a $6.7 million cut to struggling school districts to cover the cost of extended day programs and summer school to help raise achievement.
Villar said that Malloy’s budget does include bright spots, such as his call for full-day kindergarten by the fall of 2017. However, he said, “[W]e are disappointed that the [proposed budget] does not seem to make education a top priority in 2015.”
Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said he had mixed feelings on the budget. “We will continue to be one of the few states that have not cut education funding,” Cirasuolo said. “I’ve got to give [Malloy] credit for that.”
On the other hand, he said, “We are at the point where we’ve got to maintain and make progress. We need an increase in state funding.”
He said that Education Cost Sharing funding has been “virtually flat for nine years,” leaving local communities to assume more of the cost for education. “That means we will see the children of this state getting less of an education than they should. There’s no other way to put it.”
Cirasuolo said he was also concerned that the call for full-day kindergarten could place an unfunded mandate on districts.
Higher Education Squeeze
Of the cuts to the CSCU system and UConn, Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, who is co-chairwoman of the legislature’s higher education committee, said: “We anticipated that higher education was going to be cut, so in that sense, it was no revelation.”
However, Willis said the shortfalls are “real money. … Forty million is not exactly a small bite of the apple.”
“I think it reopens the issue of tuition,” she said. The Board of Regents for Higher Education, which oversees the four regional state universities and 12 community colleges in the CSCU system, has aimed to keep any tuition increases at or below about 2 percent.
According to its four-year schedule of tuition increases, UConn is expected to increase tuition by about 6.75 percent next fall.
Willis did praise Malloy’s plan to allow students to refinance loans through Connecticut’s Higher Education Student Loan Authority.
Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, who is a ranking member of the higher education committee, said he worries that the budget shortfall will “really put us behind the 8 ball” on the CSCU’s improvement program known as Transform CSCU 2020.
Gray said he didn’t think the cutbacks would have a major effect on the plan, which has drawn extensive criticism from faculty, because he said it’s a 20-year plan and expensive projects can be deferred for a few years while progress is made on other aspects.
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