October 12, 2017

Teachers ask a judge to decide if Malloy can cut education aid

Does Gov. Dannel P. Malloy have the authority to make deep cuts in state education spending to help balance Connecticut's finances since the legislature has been unable to adopt a budget he will sign?

It depends whom you ask.

On Wednesday the state's largest teachers union and a small group of city leaders and a parent agued he doesn't, and filed a lawsuit asking a Superior Court judge for an injunction to block $140 million in cuts school districts across the state will incur this month if no budget is adopted.

Donald Williams Jr., executive director of the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) and formerly the Democratic leader of the state Senate, said, "Today's court action by the CEA is essential to reverse a destructive executive order that lacks authority."

Grappling with $1.6 billion in red ink – and no adopted Connecticut budget that would bring in additional revenue – the Democratic governor signed an executive order in August to manage the state's finances. It would cut the state's primary education grant by $557 million if a budget is not approved during the 2017-18 fiscal year.

At issue is whether a state law that determined how much each municipality received last fiscal year continues in force for the current fiscal year in the absence of an adopted budget.

Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano – an attorney who has questioned whether the governor overstepped his authority with his executive order – thinks Malloy is on solid statutory grounds in cutting the state's main education grant to cities and towns, the Education Cost Sharing grant.

"There is no statute that his executive order would supersede such that there would be a conflict. Because that statute – in very plain language – ended June 30, 2017," said Fasano. "In my mind he is free to do whatever he wants to do for ECS subject to the constitutional requirement of funding education."

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen – who will be defending the state against the teacher union's lawsuit – declined to comment.

"We will review the complaint and respond at the appropriate time in court," said Jaclyn Severance, a spokesman for Jepsen.

Earlier this month, Jepsen issued an opinion saying the extent of the governor's authority to make cuts in certain other programs was unclear, and how a judge would rule in those cases could not be "predicted with certainty." But the opinion did not address the question of ECS grants.

CEA President Donald Williams Jr., at the microphone, backed by plaintiffs in the lawsuit outside Hartford Superior Court.

Asked about the lawsuit Wednesday, Malloy told reporters, "I think CEA is acting on a premature basis."

The state's ECS grants are paid out in increments throughout the fiscal year, typically in late October, January and April.

But given that a first round of cuts already is being made, the union points to districts that are gearing up to make drastic cuts – including larger class sizes, charging for sports, ending full-day kindergarten and laying off teachers.

"The checks are going out," said Williams. "This is absolutely ripe. The harm is here. It is happening, and these towns are having to deal with drastic cuts to their municipal services and especially to their schools… This is harm that is rolling out immediately as we speak."

One teacher at the press conference outside the courthouse said he fully expects to be laid off soon.

"I know I will lose my job, along with thousands of other hard-working, dedicated teachers," said Michael McCotter, a fourth grade teacher in Torrington.

The union did not file its request for an injunction "ex parte" – an approach that can bring a matter before a judge immediately if there is the potential for immediate, irreversible harm. Instead, a private status conference has been set for 27 days from now, followed by the filing of briefs by both sides in advance of a future hearing.

The attorney for the union declined to elaborate on why.

Fasano said it makes sense, since the legislature still has time to reverse the cuts before the fiscal year ends next July.

"There's a budget negotiation going on. The first set of money doesn't typically go out until the end of October, so there is still some time." he said.

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