NORWALK, Conn. – As an elected official, sometimes I’m amazed at what I don’t know. And I’m not talking about issues that require some level of expertise, such as engineering. I’m talking about more basic stuff, such as the state’s absurd Educational Cost Sharing formula. Until recently, I thought the formula – which is based on a complex algorithm driven primarily by the size of a municipality’s grand list – wreaked havoc only on Norwalk’s operating budget.
For years, many of the city’s elected and appointed officials have railed against the formula because it is not fair to the two cities in the state – Norwalk and Stamford – that have large grand lists yet also have comparably low income levels. For example, Danbury, which in many ways is similar to Norwalk, has about 23 percent of its school operating budget funded through ECS grants, while Norwalk only has 7 percent, even though both have about the same percentage of students on free and reduced priced lunches. (Meriden has 58 percent of its operating budget funded by the state; East Hartford has about 53 percent.)
This is an old issue. And for years we’ve been urging Hartford to change the formula so that Norwalk receives a bigger slice of the grant-filled pie. But what I did not know is that the state’s reliance on grand lists to determine levels of state aid also has an adverse impact in other important areas, such as school construction, school transportation, and even adult education.
During a recent finance committee meeting of the Common Council, we were discussing yet another school renovation project. We have been renovating and expanding our schools for years, and we usually receive reimbursements from the state (for those parts of the projects that qualify) of about 33 percent. I always thought that was a decent deal, and assumed that was the standard reimbursement rate across the state. Little did I know.
In the midst of the committee discussion – which was about the Rowayton School expansion – we got to talking about the possibility of building new schools instead of constantly renovating existing ones. It was noted that some cities build new schools rather frequently, while the last time we built a new one from scratch was 1971. The “new” versus “renovate” discussion led to some unsettling news, provided by the city’s finance director.
The state – relying primarily on the size of our grand list in its calculations – reimburses the city about 23 percent for new school construction. In contrast, Danbury receives a reimbursement of about 53 percent, and both Meriden and East Hartford receive reimbursements of about 66 percent. It makes a lot more sense and is much less expensive to build new schools in these cities than in Norwalk.
(I should also note that the reimbursement rates for renovation/expansions are also dependent on the grand list-driven formula. For instance, Danbury received a school renovation reimbursement of 63 percent. And the reimbursement rate for East Hartford and Meriden is about 76 percent. Put differently, the state foots about three-quarters of the school renovation bill for these two cities, but only about a third of the bill for Norwalk. Not exactly fair.)
But that’s not all. School transportation is not cheap. Norwalk is reimbursed for its yearly transportation costs to the tune of 7.55 percent from the state. In contrast, Danbury has about 41 percent of its transportation costs reimbursed; and East Hartford and Meriden have about 56 percent of their bills reimbursed. Or take adult education: Norwalk receives a reimbursement of 20 percent, Danbury about 47 percent, East Hartford and Meriden about 61 percent.
You may be wondering why I’ve focused on Danbury, East Hartford and Meriden. It’s because, according to the state, they are similar to Norwalk; that is, they are in the same reference group, which is a group of cities with similar demographic characteristics, irrespective of size. The other cities in the group are Ansonia, Derby, Norwich, Stamford and West Haven. And, except for Stamford, they all are doing a whole lot better vis-à-vis state aid than we are.
The formula that generates state aid in Connecticut seems to be based on the belief that money grows on trees in Norwalk (and Stamford). It’s long past time to radically rework that formula so the distribution of state aid for school construction, transportation, adult education, and of course, school operating expenses is done fairly.
Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) is a Common Council member who caucuses with the Republicans, and a former member of the Norwalk Board of Education. He also is a retired school teacher.