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Partisan politics or efficiency? Lamont’s plans for school building program sparks debate

Lamont administration budget director Melissa McCaw. (Ryan Caron King, Connecticut Public Radio)

A plan from Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration to shift oversight of the municipal school construction process into the governor’s budget office is not going over well with lawmakers.

Republicans say the Democratic governor’s initiative is a dangerous power grab that threatens a process that not only works well but has traditionally been immune from politics.

And one of the Democratic leaders of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee said that while the move could make sense, lawmakers need more information since it cannot be done without legislative approval.

“This move by Governor Lamont’s administration is playing politics with school construction and a direct violation of state law,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who called the move a “power grab.”

Lamont’s budget director, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw, announced in a memo this week that staff from the School Construction Unit — currently located within the Department of Administrative Services — were being transferred into OPM.

The administration referred questions Friday to DAS Commissioner Josh Geballe, who said the move is about increasing efficiency.

“This is consistent with Governor Lamont’s overall directive to find opportunities to streamline state government,” he said, adding that pairing OPM with the School Construction Unit is a natural move given their common functions.

The unit oversees hundreds of millions of dollars in state grants awarded annually to municipalities to build new schools and to renovate existing facilities.

Connecticut borrows funds for the program by issuing bonds on Wall Street, and it represents one of the single-largest financing programs in state government — along with the transportation capital program.

The Office of Policy and Management is the Executive Branch’s chief budgetary, policy planning and labor relations agency. It oversees billions of dollars in annual spending and financing, and Geballe noted OPM already collaborates closely with the School Construction Unit.

But because of OPM’s immense authority — and because it executes so much of a governor’s agenda — it generally is viewed by legislators as more partisan than other departments and agencies within the Executive Branch.

“This reeks of politics,” said Deputy House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. “There is not a good reason to make this move.”

Oversight of school construction has been assigned to the Department of Administrative Services for decades. And Candelora, who’s served in the legislature since 2007, said the unit traditionally has been seen as immune from partisan politics.

“I think over the years it’s worked in bipartisan fashion and worked well with governors and legislatures,” he said.

But Geballe said there is no intention or plan to change the operations — or the nonpartisan nature — of the school construction oversight process.

“I think the processes remain the same, the standards remain the same, the professional leadership remains the same,” he said.

 Generally, the state provides grants to school districts on major construction projects at rates ranging from 20% to 80%, with slightly less for new schools. A complicated formula based on a community’s wealth determines the rate of reimbursement.

Connecticut’s capital spending on school construction declined from $826 million in 2008 to $330.9 million last year as student population has declined.

But legislators from both parties said the decision isn’t Lamont’s to make — at least not alone.

“The school construction program is required by state statute to be managed by the Department of Administrative Services,” Fasano said. “Moving this program into OPM, the governor’s budget office, is a massive overreach by the governor and in violation of state statute.

Candelora agreed with Fasano that such a move would require legislative approval, as did Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford.

Rojas, who co-chairs the powerful Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, said that while he has an open mind about the governor’s proposal, the administration needs to consult with legislators.

“I can see where it could make a lot of sense to have a major component of bonding oversight inside OPM,” he said.

But Rojas agreed that school construction grant oversight largely has been free of partisan politics, and should remain so.

Geballe added that the administration does plan to brief legislators and to seek “relevant changes to statutes.”

9 comments

Sue Haynie November 23, 2019 at 7:00 am

Norwalk needs new schools we hear, 3 of them.

Norwalk’s in ‘DRG H’ for State reimbursement levels. Take a look at the link below, you’ll see why Norwalk can’t afford to build new schools or fix its old ones.

https://www.csde.state.ct.us/public/dgm/grantreports1/ReimbPercViewRpt.aspx

‘DRG’ defined: District Reference Groups (DRGs) is a classification system in which districts that have public school students with similar socioeconomic status (SES) and need are grouped together. Grouping like districts together is useful in order to make legitimate comparisons among districts.

The Norwalker November 23, 2019 at 7:10 am

For the average Connecticut City how much of School Funding is paid for from State Funding? For some communities outside of Fairfield County the percentage could be a lot higher.

Sue Haynie November 23, 2019 at 7:34 am

“DRG H” includes Norwalk

State of Connecticut District Profile Report for School Year 2017-18

Website link: http://edsight.ct.gov/SASPortal/main.do

CITY BLACK HISPANIC WHITE ELL FRL SPECIAL ED
Ansonia 18% 37.5% 37.6% 3.9% 68.7% 19.8%
Danbury 7.1% 49.4% 34.1% 26.2% 58% 12.9%
Derby 18% 30.7% 43.9% 2.7% 64.1% 16.3%
E.Hartford 32.2% 46.8% 15.2% 10.3% 70.4% 18.1%
Meriden 10.6% 54% 29.6% 14.9% 73.7% 20.1%
Norwalk 16.4% 47.1% 28.9% 15.4% 51.5% 14.3%
Norwich 18.4% 31.4% 31.9% 17% 75.9% 21.2%
Stamford 16.1% 43.2% 29.8% 13.2% 52% 13%
W. Haven 22.9% 37% 32.8% 13.5% 65.7% 17.2%

‘DRG’ defined: District Reference Groups (DRGs) is a classification system in which districts that have public school students with similar socioeconomic status (SES) and need are grouped together. Grouping like districts together is useful in order to make legitimate comparisons among districts.

Jo November 23, 2019 at 7:53 am

OPM almost allowed DRS to tax groceries … until taxpayers caught wind of the plan and screamed bloody murder. If doesn’t seem that a division that’s so enormous, and probably inefficient, has any business taking on additional oversight.

Bryan Meek November 23, 2019 at 1:03 pm

@TheNorwalker. Greenwich received 80% reimbursement for a school they just built. This is what happens when you have effective leadership at the state level. We have Duff and have to beg for 32% reimbursement, when Norwalk produces over $500 million in revenues for Hartford and gets back less than $50 million…..less now that they decided to deprive the Teachers Retirement system of the actuarially required payments to keep that fund solvent.

@Jo. OPM? OPM is staffed with CPAs and Tax Lawyers. They did EXACTLY what the Legislature commanded them to do. Tax Groceries. Duff blamed them and Lamont for the law he passed, basically calling a bunch of professional Finance people incompetent and laying the blame on the Governor.

After the Shenanigans for decades where the politically connected get brand new schools built in districts that don’t need them and can afford them with out 80% reimbursement like Greenwich, maybe it’s time that adults take over the duty?

Bryan Meek November 23, 2019 at 1:12 pm

I meant to include DRS as well as OPM.

Maybe this Legislature will consult tax professionals the next time they create more taxes. They should be able to afford this with the 24% increase they just voted in for their budget.

Their budget last year was $67 million. Next year it will be $83 million.

Of course they’ll be able to afford that just fine when all the toll money comes pouring in they can misappropriate like they are the gas taxes we already pay that plenty adequate to fund the transportation fund.

John Miller November 23, 2019 at 10:50 pm

Let’s see if I have this correct. Moving the School Construction Unit from the Department of Administrative Services where it has been for some time and evidently has been effective to the Governor’s Office of Policy and Management and moving the SCU staff without the approval of the legislature is NOT a political power grab. If you believe that, I have an antique railroad bridge over the Norwalk River for sale on the cheap! If Duff and company support this, is there a provision in the State Constitution which provides the citizens of the State with the ability to petition for a recall election to remove incompetent office holders?

Tom Belmont November 27, 2019 at 8:46 am

Greenwich has close friends in Hartford (Lamont). It’s not what you know that’s right, it’s who you know.

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