Speaking out at a town hall press conference in West Hartford—which faces historic property tax hikes to cover a major shortfall in state funding—a statewide coalition of eight diverse associations, including CEA, called on legislators to avoid shifting the state’s financial obligations onto cities and towns.
Policymakers are currently considering plans to shift $408 million in state costs for teacher retirement plans onto cities and towns, whose property tax rates are already among the highest in the country.
CEA President Sheila Cohen called the cost-shift plan “devastating,” saying it would “wreak havoc on cities and towns, jeopardize much-needed resources and services, and cut critical funding so desperately needed by our students.”
The Connecticut Coalition for Public Education (CCPE), she said, is a well-rounded, inclusive group of stakeholders who are “standing united and standing strong together” on this issue. CCPE comprises the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, Connecticut Association of Schools, Connecticut Federation of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers-CT, and the Connecticut Parent Teacher Association.
Constituents have spoken
The coalition echoes concerns by Connecticut voters, who are clearly opposed to any plan that shifts the state’s responsibility for teacher retirement funding onto already overburdened cities and towns.
A survey commissioned by CEA and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), conducted earlier this month by Lake Research Partners, found that two-thirds of voters (67 percent) oppose using local property taxes to balance the state budget, and an even greater majority (72 percent) oppose the use of local property taxes, as opposed to state funds, to cover the teacher retirement plan. Voters want their legislators to reject any plan that shifts costs from the state to cities and towns (69 percent of respondents), and most (64 percent) say they will not re-elect legislators who support a cost-shift plan.
“On the question of transferring debt onto the backs of property taxpayers, the public is saying ‘no,’” said CEA Executive Director Mark Waxenberg. “There is resounding opposition to such cost shifts, especially teachers’ retirement,” he said. “This plan is overwhelmingly unpopular. It penalizes every property taxpayer by increasing the most regressive tax in our state. Residents want the state to pay its own bills, not transfer another financial burden onto property taxpayers. This will not be forgotten by the public. They won’t support legislators who don’t fight back against this plan.”
“This poll shows the governor and legislators who they need to listen to—the voters,” said Senator Beth Bye.
Bye, along with fellow lawmakers Rep. Derek Slap and Rep. Joseph Verrengia, reiterated concerns at today’s press conference that a cost shift would be extremely damaging to cities and towns and their public education systems.
Calling our public schools “the jewels of our state,” Bye said Connecticut’s investment in its public education system is what brings parents to our state. “That’s our sweet spot.”
Indeed, a poll commissioned by CEA in December found that the public overwhelmingly favors strong, continued state investment in public education.
Coalition opposes cost shift
“In general, if this proposal goes through, what’s going to happen is the school systems will be diminished,” said Joe Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. “In September we’re going to see a very different and much more diminished enterprise. Putting before Connecticut’s citizens a choice of either having their property taxes increased or seeing their school systems diminished is not the comprehensive solution Connecticut needs to balance the state budget.”
CCM Executive Director Joseph DeLong agreed, saying that the cost-shift proposal “continues the failed policies in Connecticut” of pushing the state’s obligations onto cities and towns rather than containing costs and finding efficiencies. “Town and city budgets are already strained from having to fund a growing portion of the costs of critical public services, due to more than a decade of minimal increases in state funding for municipalities. Plans for this massive shift in additional state costs onto cities and towns for teacher retirement payments will force both big increases in property taxes and deep cuts in critical municipal services.”
If the General Assembly supports a cost shift, DeLong said, “We are failing our education system, we are failing small businesses, and we are failing the electorate as well.”
“I’m proud to stand with CEA and fellow coalition members,” said AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel. “We want to ensure Connecticut children have the education they need and deserve.” A cost shift, she said, would be “a step backwards” and would increase the state’s achievement gap and cut school programs. “Ultimately,” she said, “students will suffer.”
Cirasuolo, Cantor, and CABE Executive Director Robert Rader also said other significant progress in education would be undone by a cost shift—forcing many towns to go back to half-day kindergarten; cut support services for students who don’t yet qualify for special education; swell class sizes; eliminate paraprofessionals, specialists, and others who help ensure that students don’t fall through the cracks; and cut foreign language and other important programs.
“Going backwards is not what our kids need and not what communities want for their kids,” said Rader. “This is unacceptable to our boards of education, as it should be to our legislators.”
Why punish success?
In West Hartford, the proposed cost shift equates roughly to an $8 million increase, 2.8 percent of the town’s current budget—meaning the town faces its largest property tax increase in decades.
“This is a dramatic shift and liability,” said Mayor Shari Cantor. “West Hartford would have $8 million imposed on it. That is a really scary number.” Cantor spoke with pride about an education system in her town that has one of the lowest per-pupil costs in the state and serves a socioeconomically diverse student population “with more than 70 languages spoken in our public schools.
“This could be undone,” she warned, if a cost-shift plan is adopted.
Senator Beth Bye agreed, asking any legislators who support a plan that devastates strong public schools, “Why are you punishing success?”
“This proposal is an about-face and breaks a covenant the state made with the towns,” said Bye.
“We understand that balancing the state budget is a challenge,” added Cantor, “but this is not the right plan. This is unsustainable.” In addition to hurting students, Cantor said the plan would force retirees out of their homes and exacerbate the affordability problem for young people trying to establish themselves in Connecticut. “It will hurt Connecticut. It will keep us uncompetitive.”
Call to action