State Rep. Terrie Wood was in Darien on Thursday to speak with members of the Council of Darien School Parents about education, state aid, and budget concerns. Earlier in the week Senators Bob Duff and Carlo Leone were in Darien to talk about some the same issues and take questions from concerned parents. Members of the school district administration, including Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner, were on hand, as were a number of RTM members and parents.

Many parents in the community are worried about the funding levels in the budget proposed by Governor Dan Malloy. In the proposal from Malloy, Darien is slated to receive no ECS money at all, and only about $100,000 in special education reimbursement.

As her fellow representatives had on Tuesday, Wood opened by stating that this is just the beginning of the process. “The governor has proposed a budget, that’s just the first step,” Wood said, highlighting that support for the governor’s budget has been very small and changes are likely. “We’re in a very difficult budget situation,” Wood said.

Immediately dealing with education, Wood pointed out, as many have noticed, that the proposed budget would drop Education Cost Sharing grant funding to Darien to nothing. “ECS funding cut 22 towns completely, and Darien was one of them,” Wood said.

The CCJEF ruling, which was a scathing review of the way the state funds education, said that part of the problem is not the dollars, it’s the way those dollars are spent. This was the impetus for a new formula to determine how ECS grant money would be dispersed and the creation of a new special education grant. Wood then turned to the Excess Cost Reimbursement pool, which offsets special education costs for school districts. Last year Darien received $2.3 million, but the governor’s proposal drops this number to just over $100,000 via a new special education grant. The new grant eliminates the ECR, takes about $400 million from the ECS pool, and $10 million in new dollars, and uses that money to reimburse special education costs.The special education grant takes into account a town’s ability to pay into the level of funding they receive, as wealthy towns would receive no reimbursement at all and the poorest towns receiving up to 54%. This proposal drew serious legal questions from those in attendance on Tuesday.

Wood strongly disagreed with this approach to special education funding, saying, “You cannot discriminate against a special needs child based on wealth. It is inhuman and wrong. I believe that will get changed in this budget process.”

Wood, Duff, and Leone all felt that the funding for special education as proposed was something that would change.

Wood also spoke about the governor’s proposal to push some of the cost of teacher pensions onto municipalities. The proposed budget has cities and towns paying for 33% of the cost of their teacher’s pensions. Wood suggested, “if you’re going to push it off on municipalities, let us negotiate the contracts.” A number of parents made similar points to Wood, as well as to Duff and Leone on Tuesday, that if towns are going to be asked to pay for these pensions, they should be allowed to negotiate contracts and have a measure of control in the future. Brenner would agree with Wood, commenting that, “if we’re going to pay for it, we should be able to a manage it.” There is no language in the proposed budget that prevents the current number of 33% from rising in the coming years as pensions become more burdensome to the state.

Wood then turned her attention to regionalization, an idea that has gained traction not only with Malloy but with a growing number of Democrats in the legislature. “The governor and far left democrats want regionalization of our services, but they want us to pay for pensions,” Wood said.

Regionalization of health services is one such topic that has been in play since prior to the November elections. A regionalized health service would mean Darien would no longer have its own health services office, which at present costs about $300,000.  

Instead, a regional office of health services would serve Darien and other municipalities in the area. This past summer, the numbers in play suggested that those in the region would pay 1.5% of their town operating budget to fund the office, which is about $2 million for Darien. While exactly who the regionalized office would serve is unknown, Wood said that early conversations have suggested it would be based on Council of Government, or COG.

Darien is currently part of the West COG, one of nine COGs in the state. Every municipality in the state is part of a COG, as not joining one meant that the state would no longer send transportation funding. The West COG has 18 towns in it. Wood explained there is at present, up to 20% of the commercial and property tax revenue of each town in a COG could be shared, but the only way to pass this would be for everyone in the COG to agree. However, this could change.

“Proportional voting, spearheaded by Bob Duff, would, for towns with 50,000 people or more, for every 10,000 more people they get 1 more vote, and majority rules. Stamford would have 8 votes, Norwalk 7, and so on,” Wood explained.

Effectively, this would give Darien only one vote and as a result, almost no voice at all in its COG. At this point Board of Education member Christa McNamara asked Wood if it actually would make more sense to simply leave the COG altogether. Darien would have to take on the cost of transportation as funding from the state would stop, but they would not share 20% of their tax revenue with COG members. “There has been some discussion,” about the matter, Wood said.

Despite the foreboding nature of some of the conversation, Wood still urged caution. “This budget will change,” Wood said, adding, “the state has been mismanaged.”

“It’s not about spending more, it’s about spending better. Republicans have offered a budget every year. We need to change the trajectory of this state,” Wood said.