Law & Courts

Coalition of Conn. School Leaders and Mayors Plans Finance Lawsuit

By Jeff Archer — November 15, 2005 3 min read
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Connecticut appears poised to join the growing list of states that have been sued in an effort to ensure that their public schools receive enough money.

A year-old coalition of Connecticut municipal leaders, school districts, and education organizations has said that it plans to file an “adequacy” lawsuit against the state during a meeting of the group scheduled for Nov. 22.

The news comes as Gov. M. Jodi Rell has begun to form a task force to suggest changes to the state’s school finance system, but backers of the planned lawsuit said last week they still intend to forge ahead.

“I’m tired of attending meetings or being on task forces to try to tweak a system that’s broken,” said Mayor Eddie A. Perez of Hartford. “This is looking at the funding of education in the state totally, not just tweaking around the edges.”

BRIC ARCHIVE

Mr. Perez is the vice president of the group that is behind the planned suit, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding. Along with leaders from some two-dozen other cities and towns, members include the Connecticut school administrators’ and school boards’ associations and the state affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Organizers say much of their case will rest on a recent study they commissioned to determine the cost of providing learning opportunities sufficient for students to achieve state and federal performance objectives.

Carried out by the Denver-based consulting group Augenblick, Palaich, and Associates, which has done similar studies in other states, the analysis suggested Connecticut would have to add $1 billion to the $1.7 billion it now spends annually on aid to local districts for school operations in order to meet improvement goals set by the state for the No Child Left Behind Act.

Coalition members blame the shortfall on broken promises by state lawmakers. Connecticut’s current formula for distributing money to districts was adopted after an earlier school finance lawsuit resulted in a 1977 state supreme court ruling that ordered the state to alleviate inequities in spending between its low- and high-income communities.

Law School Steps In

In recent years, state-legislated caps on aid have resulted in less money for districts than the finance formula would dictate, lawsuit supporters contend. As local communities have picked up the slack through increased property taxes, the state share of spending on public schools has dropped from 46 percent to about 38 percent over the past 15 years.

Stephen Cassano, the mayor of Manchester, Conn., said his town’s school district would have gotten $26.8 million more in state support over the 10 years if the state had followed its aid formula. To make up the difference, he said, Manchester has had to raise local taxes and trim parts of the town budget.

“We’re not funding schools the way they should be, and we are clearly not funding police, fire, and other local services the way we should be,” said Mr. Cassano. He is stepping down after 14 years as mayor and serves as the executive director of the coalition behind the impending lawsuit.

Similar complaints were lodged by a group of 12 towns that backed a suit against the state in 1998, but that case was dropped by the plaintiffs five years later because of a lack of money to continue pursuing it. This time, a professor at Yale University’s law school, in New Haven, Conn., and his students have agreed to represent the plaintiffs pro bono.

Robert Solomon, who directs the law school’s clinical-practice programs, which provide students with hands-on experience, said that a special project, the Education Adequacy Project, was set up to handle the case.

Noting that the Connecticut Constitution guarantees a “suitable and substantially equal educational opportunity,” Mr. Solomon said the plaintiffs’ challenge would be to convince a court that the right way to meet that guarantee is through a funding mechanism based on what it costs to give students the education they need.

“The remedy is much more critical than proving liability,” he said.

Judd Everhart, a spokesman for Gov. Rell, said the Republican state leader considered the threatened lawsuit “unfortunate.” In September, the governor announced plans to form a task force to recommend ways to fix the school funding system to be considered in the 2006 legislative session, which begins in February.

Her office said that it expects to appoint members of that task force in the coming weeks. Other members will be appointed by the legislature.

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