When it comes to funding local public schools, top state officials may be ready to go where none of their predecessors has gone before in carving out new fiscal policy. That’s the deduction made by many in the audience at today’s State Budget Forum sponsored by Connecticut Voices for Children.
Initiatives such as a statewide property tax, giving local boards of education the authority to tax, and regionalizing key special education costs were front and center as everyone from Governor Dannel Malloy to the governor’s budget director Ben Barnes to Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey to former state comptroller Bill Curry offered possible policy changes for discussion.
Top officials are under pressure to close a budget shortfall and are confronting the critical need to make education funding more predictable and stable.
“We have to fundamentally change how we fund state and local government,” said Sharkey. He said that a reevaluation of the state’s tax structure is crucial. “Property taxes hit those least able to pay the most,” he said.
Sharkey explained that the property tax burden in the state is as heavy as it is because it funds so much of education costs. “We need a fundamental shift,” he said.
Curry, in his remarks titled When the Elephant’s Bigger than the Room: Property Tax Reform in Connecticut, said that property tax reform could be a silver bullet for the state. “It doesn’t fix everything, but it does heal a lot of things.” He said that if it were done right, it would positively affect not only education funding, but land use, transportation plans, and much more.
Barnes noted that property taxes are remarkably stable year to year, and therefore predictable, unlike state taxes. “We should look at property taxes as part of the mix,” he said.
Sharkey suggested that cities and towns consider splitting up the property tax bill so that the education portion is separate from the municipal government side. If boards of education were to collect taxes, it would hold them more accountable to taxpayers. It would also offer an incentive for them to create efficiencies and savings that have already been realized on the municipal side, he said.
A big concern for local boards of education is special education costs, Sharkey said. “Special education costs shift a lot, year to year, and blow out education budgets. We can maintain some local control, but we need to try to regionalize curriculum offerings and have a much bigger commitment from the state.”
Malloy agreed that, especially in areas like special education, regionalization could result in substantial savings for towns. “I urge districts to do more together,” he said. However he added, “We live in a state that’s probably not going to mandate that.”
Malloy reiterated past statements about his support for maintaining education funding. “Education is extremely important to me. I’m going to stand by our commitment on the education front,” he said.
Sharkey said that transportation contracts are another area where costs could be greatly reduced if districts work together. “We could be saving millions on school bus transportation through regionalization. Why can’t we create regional school calendars? It doesn’t take money, it takes will. It’s the kind of thing we need to do this year. Now is the time.”