Faces a School Tax Revolt
By LEWIS M.
August 23, 2008; Page A9
On June 30, the board of education and the town council in Enfield, Conn.,
convened to hear the results of a citizen cost-cutting committee. Among its
other recommendations, the 17 residents recommended replacing some public
school teachers with low-cost college interns, restricting the use of school
vehicles, and increasing employee contributions to benefit plans.
These may seem modest steps toward fiscal responsibility -- but
they are emblematic of a significant change in this very blue state: growing
disenchantment with the price of government, especially of public education.
Over the past two and a half decades, the student population in Connecticut has
increased only 10%. Yet the cost of schooling more than doubled -- to $8.8
billion in 2006, up from $3.4 billion in 1981. Seventeen years ago, the state
enacted an income tax with promises to cut other taxes. Instead, real-estate
assessments soared, creating a massive income transfer from the private to the
public sector, fueled in part by a state cost-sharing formula that uses taxes
on residents in the suburbs to subsidize urban schools. Helping to soak up all
that money were binding arbitration laws, skewed to give teacher unions an
advantage in collective bargaining negotiations.
The result is that the average teacher salary is now the highest
in the nation -- $57,750 excluding benefits, according to the latest
survey of the American Federation of Teachers. Meanwhile, the American
Legislative Exchange Council reports that Connecticut is one of the 10 states with the
heaviest property-tax burdens. According to a calculator on the Web site of the
Nonpartisan Action for a Better Redding, a local taxpayer group, even the
smallest municipalities unnecessarily spent millions on school construction,
much of it to meet a predicted increase in population that never materialized.
The calculator enables the resident of any town to compare the
cost of constructing and staffing a new building (or addition) to the cost of
simply subsidizing the overflow number of students to attend private, parochial
or home schools. Says David Bohn, president of the group: "You could
extend the subsidy to children already in such schools and still save hundreds
of millions long term."
Now taxpayers find themselves caught between falling real estate
values and ever increasing property taxes. And for what?
The National Assessment of Educational Progress puts eighth-grade proficiency
figures in the state at 37% for reading, 35% for math, 33% for science and 53%
Connecticut law does not allow
a statewide referendum to curb school spending with a property-tax cap, as do
ballot measures this year in Nevada and Florida. Nevertheless,
most towns in Connecticut
fold the school budget into the municipal budget, which can be voted on at a
town meeting, or by annual referendum, or by a petition-inspired referendum,
depending on the local rules. So citizens do have the ability to rein in public
spending if they choose to act -- and that is what they are beginning to do.
This spring Avon, Farmington, Stonington and Ridgefield
-- all affluent communities -- rejected the politicians' original spending
plans. On June 17, the voters of suburban West Hartford,
where public schools have often ranked among the best in the state, rejected
the town budget by a lopsided 7,037 to 3,711. As of the end of June, a record
85 of Connecticut's 169 municipalities had or were planning budget referenda;
and the median approved spending increase was 3.8%, lower than the 5% last year
and 5.3% in 2006.
Limiting government at the state level is more difficult, thanks
in part to a 1964 Supreme Court decision (Butterworth v. Dempsey)
requiring that representation in state legislatures be based solely on
population. By depriving rural regions of their traditional influence, urban
Democrats and public sector unions have more influence. From 1970 until 2005,
total state spending skyrocketed to $4,322 per capita from $863 in real dollars
-- in spite of near-zero job growth and a decline in net population for every
year except one in the decade between 1997 and 2006.
But at the local level, there are nearly as many Republican
chief executives as Democrats, and both parties outside the big cities are
relatively conservative on fiscal issues. This is leading to more than just
Mike Guarco, chairman of the finance
board in Granby,
has formed the Connecticut Municipal Consortium for Fiscal Responsibility, a
bipartisan alliance of elected officials representing 117 of the state's towns.
The group fights against binding arbitration, "prevailing wage" laws
for public building projects, and burdensome state mandates (such as a
requirement that all student suspensions be supervised in-house). These are the
three largest cost drivers of K-12 education.
There are other ideas in the air. In Chester, First Selectman (Mayor) Tom Marsh
proposes to pay students not to attend public school. He wants to give $1,500 a
year to families who send a child to vocational school, $3,000 to families who homeschool, and to put $5,000 in a college scholarship fund
for anyone transferring to a private high school.
Mr. Marsh also wants to give a full two-year community college
scholarship worth $5,000 to students who graduate from public high school in
three years. "If we can persuade families to consider options outside the
system," he says, "we have the potential to save significantly long
With this gathering grass-roots rebellion -- and with the
archbishop in Hartford advocating a tax credit for corporations that help poor
students attend private schools -- the public education establishment is
increasingly nervous. Last December, the Connecticut Association of Boards of
Education and the Connecticut Association of Public school
Superintendents wrote an unprecedented joint letter to every school board and
superintendent in the state criticizing Armand Fusco, the retired school
superintendent who advises the citizen cost-cutting committee in Enfield.
Mr. Fusco has not backed away. He notes that even before the Enfield citizens'
commission offered its recommendations, the very existence of the committee
spurred the town council to reject a requested 3% increase in the school
budget, and to forestall efforts to raise the property tax rate. For next year,
already adopted zero-based budgeting.
The time is coming, says Mr. Fusco, for all Connecticut schools to "distinguish
between needs and wants."
Mr. Andrews is executive director of the Yankee Institute in