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Published in Print: October 9, 2002, as As Plaintiffs Quit, Conn. Towns' Suit Over Aid Falters

As Plaintiffs Quit, Conn. Towns' Suit Over Aid Falters

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A Connecticut school finance lawsuit, filed more than four years ago with the high expectations of 12 towns that were challenging the way the state hands out education dollars, may not even make it to trial.

Many of the original plaintiffs have backed out of the lawsuit because of legal bills that have added up over the history of the case. Only four of the original towns remain in the suit.

Even East Hartford, where the lawsuit began, has stepped away, at least for now, because of budget pressures. Mayor Tim Larson said last week that his town was looking at a legal bill of $100,000.

"We just haven't been able to pull the money together," said Mr. Larson. His son attends the same middle school as the lead plaintiff, Sean Johnson, whose mother filed suit on his behalf when he was a 3rd grader.

"Everything has just come to roost," Mr. Larson continued. "We were looking at a $5 million budget hole in the town budget. We have taken a pause as far as the suit is concerned."

Mr. Larson said his town of 50,000 has been forced to raise property taxes for the past several years to keep up with education expenditures. "I would like to see this trial through to its fruition," the mayor said, "but when you have to balance your budget, you're trying to boil down and reduce costs wherever you can."

The lead lawyer for the plaintiffs said he never expected an easy fight.

"We knew going in it would be a long, hard struggle, and that's what it has been," said Robert M. DeCrescenzo, a lawyer with the Hartford firm of Updike, Kelly & Spellacy. He began preparing a legal challenge to the school funding system while he was Mr. Larson's predecessor as the mayor of East Hartford.

While the law firm has charged discounted fees to the towns and put together a payment plan under which they share legal costs, the towns have not been able to pay all of their bills. So far, Mr. DeCrescenzo said, the firm has spent about $780,000 on the case and has billed the plaintiffs $360,000. Meanwhile, the firm is negotiating for more money from the towns.

With a trial scheduled for next September, Mr. DeCrescenzo said he won't know if the case will make it that far until he meets with the remaining four municipalities in the suit.

"We do the work our clients ask. If they want us to pursue the case, we will do that," he said. "I won't know until I talk to them."

Of the communities remaining in the suit—Bridgeport, Hampden, Manchester, and New Britain—at least one declares it isn't pulling out.

"The city is committed to seeing this through," said Joseph Gresko, a spokesman for Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim.

"We were hoping this would be settled in court several years ago," Mr. Gresko said. "But quite frankly, the state is probably happy it is taking so long, so each municipality is having to reconsider their financial situation."

Political Issue

The case, Johnson v. Rowland, began in the spring of 1998, when the suit was filed on behalf of seven students and a coalition of the 12 towns. The plaintiffs have contended that the state has not contributed its fair share of education funding, and that poorer communities, like those that sued, are left with hefty tax burdens to pay for K-12 education.

That funding imbalance perpetuates vast inequities in the quality of education offered throughout Connecticut, argue the plaintiffs, who want the state to craft what they consider a fairer system.

They say the legislature failed in its attempt to equalize school funding in the late 1980s, even after the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for the state to have municipalities rely too heavily on property taxes to pay for public education.

Among other contentions, the suit maintains that the formula for what is called the "equalized cost sharing" grant, which was devised by state lawmakers in 1988 to help equalize education spending between poor and wealthy communities, has been ineffective. That's because of the way the legislature has placed caps on payments over the years to reduce the state's share of education funding, the plaintiffs argue.

A year before the suit was filed, for example, a report from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities showed that cities and towns received $868 million less from the state in 1996 than they would have received under the original equalizing-grant formula.

Observers point out that the school funding issues at the heart of the case will not go away even if the lawsuit never makes it to trial.

Bill Curry, a former state comptroller and a domestic-policy adviser under President Clinton who is challenging Republican incumbent Gov. John G. Rowland in next month's election, has said the current funding system places an undue burden on towns to raise property taxes.

He has criticized Gov. Rowland as spending too little on education.

The governor's office could not be reached for comment.

Another Way?

Not all education observers in Connecticut agree a lawsuit is the best way to spur state leaders to find a more equitable approach to dividing up aid to education.

Patrice McCarthy, the deputy director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, who has followed the finance case, argues that lobbying state lawmakers and building coalitions with teachers' unions and administrator organizations is a more effective way to win changes in school funding policy.

"We were not necessarily convinced this litigation would lead to increased state support for public education," Ms. McCarthy said. "It wasn't a challenge to the overall funding system, but a challenge to the distribution of funding to individual communities. Our concern is there needs to be greater state support for all communities."

Rep. Cameron Staples, the Democratic chairman of the House education committee, agrees the state has not done enough to equalize school funding. He contends that Gov. Rowland has consistently underfunded education in his proposed budgets, and he complains as well that the legislature's Democratic leadership has not made education funding a priority.

"The towns are now paying more for special education and not getting adequate increases for their regular education budgets," Mr. Staples said.

He said he doubts that Connecticut will see a legislative push to change school funding policies any time soon, given the state's $390 million deficit.

"I think the state budget crisis will make it next to impossible to do any more than very minimum increases in education aid," Mr. Staples said.

Vol. 22, Issue 6, Pages 1,26

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