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After Ruling On School Finding, Officials Ponder Next Step

After Ruling On School Finding, Officials Ponder Next Step

CT Post Sept. 9, 2016

By Linda Conner Lambeck & Ken Dixon

The lengthy to-do list the state has been ordered to implement within 180 days — make state school aid fair, raise graduation standards, revamp special education and revise teacher evaluations — has some lawmakers wondering if there is the time and political will to get the job done.

“This will have a generational impact,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “Making sure we get it right is better than rushing to some sort of conclusion.”

But Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher — who presided over the trial stemming from a lawsuit brought against the state and delivered his lengthy decision on Wednesday — said too much time had already been wasted on legislative task forces and committees. The court can’t make the state pay more toward public education, he said, but it can make sure the money is distributed in a rational, constitutional way. “To get rid of an irrational policy, adopt a rational one,” Moukawasher said in his decision. “It’s the court’s job to require the state to have one. It’s the state’s job to develop one.”

While the ruling has raised hopes among school districts that stand to benefit, it has also set off a debate over the timeline, over who is tasked with the work and when the clock actually starts ticking. The legislative session doesn’t even begin until January. “I think there is a lot of ambiguity in the ruling,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said Thursday.

Fasano, a lawyer, said he’s not even sure the ruling would be considered final before the state submits its plan to the court. If it’s not final, he’s not sure Attorney General George Jepsen can even appeal yet. Fasano said Jepsen has several grounds for requesting clarifications, which could push back the 180-day deadline. “The bottom line is, I don’t believe this judgment will become final,” Fasano said.

Thus far, the attorney general, whose office tried the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell case for the state, will only say the office is reviewing the decision and assessing its available next steps.

Some ready to get to work back to top

Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim said he wants to get as many parties together as possible, as soon as possible. “We need to come up with a plan,” Ganim said.

Although the state has tried and failed in the past to come up with a workable school funding formula, Ganim hopes the court order will finally get it done. For Bridgeport, change could mean millions of extra dollars for the city’s school system.

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who like Ganim listened in the courtroom as the decision was read, called it one of the most well-reasoned, on-point indictments of public education he has heard. He sees the marching orders as clearly telling Jepsen to develop a plan to eventually bring to the General Assembly and back to the courtroom for approval. “He specifically didn’t mention the Legislature,” said Boughton, who is also a former high school teacher.

If an appeal is not filed, Boughton expects that Jepsen, acting as the governor’s attorney, will hire consultants and begin a radical restructuring of public education. Boughton said the state’s current fiscal crisis is bound to mean less money for some districts, so others can get more.

Kevin Maloney, a spokesman for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalites, said his organization stands ready to help develop an education funding solution within the six-month time frame. “If our state and local leaders work collectively with educators and other interested parties, this can and should be accomplished,” Maloney said. His organization has a laundry list of suggestions for needs-based school funding and spending more wisely, he said.

f the six-month clock is ticking, the deadline set by the judge would fall in early March — two months after the start of the 2017 legislative session. House Republican Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said that timeline would be problematic. “To assume that we can find a solution by next March, two months after the next session convenes, is not realistic, based on how long this case has been argued,” Klarides said.

State Rep. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, does expect an appeal, and said the judge may have overstepped his bounds. “He may have gone too far when he started (talking) about teachers and their evaluations,” she said.

Sheila Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said her group stands ready to work to ensure equitable resources for all students, but also questions the court’s attempt to impose one-size-fits-all mandates that erode flexibility and local education control. She also said six months wasn’t enough time.

Ganim said he came away with the sense the decision may not be appealable, “though I do think the Supreme Court would love to get their hands on this.” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said that while he continues to review the decision, the judge seemed to agree with many of the education reforms Malloy implemented or tried to when he took office.

Beyond steering more money to needy districts, Malloy tried to reform the teacher evaluation system and, in 2013, suggested shifting some municipal aid grants into school funding. The idea was rejected.

“It is too early to say if 180 days is enough,” Malloy said. “I think we should act in earnest. Quite frankly, I think quite clearly the judge is saying, ‘Hey Connecticut, get this right and and get it right quickly,’ and quite frankly I think we should get it right quickly.” Duff said this is an opportunity. “We must be creative, bold and strategic,” he said. “This issue is far too important to rush into, Band-Aid or wax poetic. Our children’s future, their success and our state’s economy are counting on us to get it right.”