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Letter: Norwalk Is Misjudged By Many In Hartford

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk.DailyVoice.com accepts signed, original letters to the editor. Letters may be e-mailed to letters@dailyvoice.com.

To the Editor,

For the first time since it initially convened a year ago, the task force assigned to review the state education cost sharing (ECS) formula will meet in Fairfield County and hear public comment. As has been reported in Norwalk Daily Voice , the meeting will be held in Bridgeport this Thursday evening. Because the task force must deliver its recommendations in October, this may be the only remaining opportunity for Norwalkers to communicate directly with its members. For those interested in presenting comments, insight into perceptions about Norwalk in Hartford may be helpful. I also want to offer a few details about the commenting process.

In 1977, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in the case of Horton vs. Meskill that the state must ensure substantially equal education opportunities for all public school students. The court went on to say that providing the same amount of state funding for every student in every district would not meet this objective, because students in wealthier towns would have access to more local funding and thus greater resources and opportunities. It left to the Legislature the task of developing a formula for allocating state funds in a way that would take town wealth into account in an effort to achieve equitable distribution of state funds throughout all school districts.

While the formula has changed many times over the years, the grand list – or property values – has remained a major factor in how it quantifies town wealth. This is what is behind the severe and persistent inequity underlying Norwalk's ECS funding allocation.

Norwalk's property values are high compared to those of other towns and cities with similar levels of household income and student need. Because of the weighting of the grand list factor, the ECS formula makes Norwalk appear to have a greater ability to pay for education than it actually has. As a result, the ECS formula allocates less money to Norwalk than it does to the towns that most resemble it in terms of median income and other socioeconomic indicators, like poverty levels and population with English as a second language.

While the ECS formula may once have provided a fairly accurate characterization of Norwalk's funding needs, this is no longer the case. Nevertheless, there is a view among many in Hartford that Norwalk's ability to pay for education is more similar to that of Fairfield County's smaller affluent towns than to that of the eight other towns in its District Reference Group (DRG), the group with the second lowest socioeconomic levels in the state. This mistaken impression and its consequences were made abundantly clear during the last legislative session.

As a member of the education committee, I introduced an amendment to a budget bill in April that would have allowed Norwalk and other towns with a significant disparity between property values and median household income to reduce by 10 percent the equalized net grand list figure used in the ECS formula.

The response of the House co-chair of education, which captured much of what we heard in earlier public hearings this year, was telling: "You are talking about some communities with the largest grand lists in the state of Connecticut ... the greatest local ability to pay. We have an ECS formula that reflects the Horton vs. Meskill decision that we set up a formula that equalizes disparities among towns based on their wealth. And the town's wealth is measured by its grand list. [The amendment] runs directly counter to the dictates of Horton vs. Meskill. ... I will be glad to vote in opposition."

What does this tell us? Above all, that perceptions about Norwalk must change. The ECS task force must understand the real financial situation so many Norwalk residents face. The members must understand how much of "town wealth" is tied up in illiquid real estate, and how little disposable income correlates with property values. They must also understand as much as possible about the urban character of Norwalk's school system and the needs that go along with it. Individual stories can be a powerful thing, and the more of them the task force hears, the better.

It is also important to note that while Horton vs. Meskill says property values are a significant measure of town wealth, nowhere does it say that they are the only measure. This allows the task force plenty of room to change the grand list's weighting in the ECS formula.

The ECS task force meeting will take place in at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 12, and is scheduled to last two hours. It will be held at the Aquaculture Education Center, 60 St. Stephens Road, in Bridgeport. Although the task force will not take e-mail submissions, it will accept hard copies of comments at the meeting. If you cannot attend and wish to submit comments, you may e-mail them to my office at gail.lavielle@cga.ct.gov, and I will submit them for you on Thursday.

It's time for Norwalk's 11,000 students to get a fair ECS allocation. As a community, Norwalk has shown that it cares deeply about education, and its voice is eloquent, clear, and determined. If there were ever a time to make sure it is heard, that time is now.

State Rep. Gail Lavielle, a Republican, represents the 143rd district, which includes parts of Wilton and Norwalk and, following redistricting, will also include part of Westport. She is a member of the General Assembly's Education Committee.

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