Forecast 2014: Education Law Issues Include Money, Reform Measures
Inadequate funding is the new normal for many school districts, but the demands and expectations on school districts in Connecticut have never been greater. School districts are being squeezed by unfunded mandates related to education reform and accountability, on the one hand, and by municipal austerity and oversight on the other. Given these pressures, we may expect to see a number of related legal challenges for school districts in 2014.
Even in the best of times, towns and boards of education clash over their respective rights and responsibilities. For over a century, Connecticut courts have recognized that boards of education operate as agents of the state and, as such, remain beyond municipal control in many respects. Connecticut General Statutes Section 10-222 provides, for example, that the municipal appropriation "for the maintenance of public schools shall be expended by and in the discretion of the board of education." That independence often rankles municipal officials, who watch as the lion's share of the town budget goes to support the schools while they struggle to moderate tax increases and deal with financial challenges on the municipal side.
The future portends even greater tension because of tight money and municipal officials emboldened by recent legislative changes. To be sure, in Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Educational Funding v. Rell, on remand, the Superior Court in December denied the state's motion to dismiss. The case, which concerns a challenge to the current education funding statutes as unconstitutionally "inadequate," originally resulted in a plurality opinion of the Connecticut Supreme Court, and it is now expected to go to trial in July. We do not expect a decision for months or years to come, but the ongoing case may militate against state action to reduce educational funding.
That said, it is unlikely that funding increases in most school districts will even keep up with inflation. Currently, over 40 percent of the dollars spent on our schools comes from the state. While the state budget may be in balance in the coming year, significant deficits are projected for future years. Compounding that difficulty are the facts that Connecticut has the dubious distinction of being second only to Illinois in underfunding its pension obligations, and that Connecticut has long-term unfunded obligations in excess of $60 billion. Connecticut taxpayers will have to deal with these issues at some point, and since the recession of 2008 there has already been fierce resistance in some towns to increase taxes. Accordingly, meaningful increases in funding for education, at either the state or local level, are quite unlikely in the coming year.
At the same time, the General Assembly has invited greater municipal scrutiny of school board expenditures. While C.G.S. Section 10-222 has long permitted line-item budget transfers over the course of the year, that statute was amended in 1998 to provide that the board of education itself must make such transfers, except as follows: Boards may delegate that authority to specified individuals (e.g., the superintendent of schools) only (1) "under emergency circumstances if the urgent need for the transfer prevents the board from meeting in a timely fashion to consider such transfer," and (2) if such transfers are announced at the next regularly-scheduled board meeting.
In 2013, the General Assembly further amended the statute. Now, when such transfers are made, the board of education must give a written explanation of the transfer to the legislative body of the municipality. In addition, when the municipality receives the board of education budget estimate as part of the annual budget process, the municipal budget authority must now make "spending recommendations and suggestions … as to how such board of education may consolidate noneducational services and realize financial efficiencies." The board of education need not agree to such recommendations or suggestions, but (adding insult to injury) if it rejects any such recommendations, the board of education must now explain its decision to the town in writing within 10 days.
Moreover, school boards must now post on the district websites aggregate spending information in specified categories for each school. With the coming financial storm and these statutory amendments, we can expect to see even greater tension and possibly legal conflicts between municipal and education officials.
In ruling that the CCJEF case will go to trial in July, the Superior Court rejected the state's claim that the case was not yet ripe for adjudication because of the educational reforms enacted in 2010 and 2012. The impact of these reforms on boards of education in Connecticut is already being felt.