The budget sessions in Hartford this past year were tumultuous, contentious, and challenging as state legislators worked to close a massive deficit. As Governor Dannel Malloy made every effort to not raise taxes in the state, a large number of programs and grants saw large cuts. The Education Cost Sharing grant to Darien and other affluent towns was reduced to zero in April before being partially restored in early May.
The ECS grant to Darien was originally to be about $1.5 million. The major boards in Darien, along with the RTM, often plan and budget for a smaller about of money from the state, as the recent history of cuts at the state level has reduced aid to Darien, and the town often acts with a fiscally conservative approach. This year the town had planned for about $1.1 million to come out of that $1.5 million. In April, that $1.5 million fell to nothing, as Malloy proposed the eliminating of aid to the 28 most affluent towns in Connecticut. In the first week in May, a deal between Malloy and legislators partially returned some of the ECS grant money, with $775,000 going to Darien. The scramble between the RTM and town boards was frantic as the RTM budget vote was to occur May 9, and no one was sure exactly what money would come from the state, if any. Beyond that, town boards had already met and adjusted budgets in an effort to address the zeroing out of the ECS grant, which is actually part of the town revenue stream.
The money that each town receives from the ECS grant is determined by a legislated formula. The purpose of the formula is to drive funding towards communities with higher need and less ability to raise revenue locally. However, the formula has been ignored in instances where less funding was called for due to raising property values or smaller enrollments, and this resulted in a number of towns, some more affluent towns included, receiving more grant money than was actually called for by the formula. Darien fell into this category this year. Instead of receiving nothing as Malloy proposed, the agreement in place simply called for strict adherence to the ECS formula and the issue correcting itself as a result.
The cuts and the uncertainty that followed resulted in a number of capital projects being eliminated from the Board of Education budget, even though the ECS grant technically appears on the town budget. The final approved adjustments included removing Board of Education priority two capital projects, which totals $182,500. The deferment of the generator for Town Hall, which saved $250,000 was part of a cut made by the Board of Selectmen. There would also be deferral of other Board of Education capital projects, namely the storage facility at Darien High School to save $250,000 and the Middlesex Middle School carpet replacements to save $65,000. The Board of Education also deferred the purchase of a new rack body truck to do utility work around the district. This would have replaced the current truck which is from 1995, making it older than every child in the Darien school system.
The cuts from the past year are still on the mind’s of local officials as the state moves towards the start of the legislative session. With a great deal of expensive capital projects in line for the coming years, including the potential of a major renovation or even a whole new building at Ox Ridge Elementary School, the town is entering 2017 uncertain, as always, about how much, if any, state aid can be expected when it comes to education in Darien.