A proposed budget revision by Gov. Dannel Malloy that seeks to cut state education funding by $64.8 million, originally planned for fiscal year 2016-2017, has received significant backlash throughout the state and locally. The proposed cuts are part of an attempt to close a $922 million projected deficit.

Darien and New Canaan stand to lose $1.37 million and $1.2 million, respectively, and are among 28 of the state’s school districts that would lose state Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grants. The cuts to the wealthiest districts would save the state $25 million. In fiscal year 2015-2016, Darien received $1.87 million and New Canaan received $1.53 million in ECS grants, according to data posted by Malloy on April 14. The same set of data shows the municipalities affected by the cuts have some of the lowest mill rates in the state and are least reliant on state aid.

Many in the hardest-hit areas, especially affluent communities in Fairfield and Litchfield counties, are questioning the fairness of such drastic slashes.

“I question the legality of the governor’s proposal to zero out Darien’s ECS funding on the basis of our relatively low mill rate. Whether you live in Darien or Waterbury, there is a cost to providing appropriate public education to our children,” Darien First Selectwoman Jayme Stevenson said.

Sharing Stevenson’s indignation was New Canaan First Selectman Rob Mallozzi, who traveled to Hartford on April 13 to speak against the cuts.

“I went before many of our legislators and basically admonished the process, because it does appear that the cuts are less than equitable. Many of the towns whose grants are being cut unfortunately don’t have representatives in high leadership positions on the education committee and they appear to be paying a political price,” Mallozzi told the New Canaan News.

Nearby municipalities including Greenwich, Wilton, Westport and Ridgefield would join Darien and New Canaan among those receiving no state funding for the first time since the ECS program began in 1989. Throughout the state, 111 districts would lose at least part of their expected funding. Because the formula-based ECS program was instituted in order to more equitably dole out state funding to school districts most in need, grants awarded to Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport would see no change.

“I fully understand that some communities need more support than others and they deserve to receive it, so long as they can prove good outcomes. The ECS formula takes those needs into consideration while preserving a foundation amount allocated to all children.

“Cutting funding to all small towns in the southwest but preserving funding for Stamford and Norwalk is perplexing and brings a troubling political element into the governor’s proposal. Choosing to support kids in one community over another is divisive and polarizing,” Stevenson went on.

Mallozzi complained of a perceived hypocrisy in Hartford that the cuts to the ECS grants illuminate.

“The irony of all this is that Hartford has been extremely loud about the fact that they will not raise taxes to fix the budget mess they’re in,” Mallozzi said. “Fact is, all they’re doing is shifting the burden to towns like ours. It may not be a tax out of Hartford, but it’s a tax just the same. Local municipalities will somehow have to come up with the difference.”

Stevenson said communities such as Darien and New Canaan have four options to make up the difference: Do nothing and wait to see what the Legislature supports, cut operating spending further, raise local taxes, or some combination of the three.

Darien has elected a defensive strategy.

On Monday, the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance, Superintendent of Schools Dan Brenner, Board of Education Chairman Michael Harmon and state Rep. Terrie Wood, R-141, were all present at a special emergency meeting to discuss the proposed cuts and take preemptory defensive measures.

Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodsky outlined a revised budget, which was later passed and sent to the Representative Town Meeting for final approval, to defer four priority two projects from the Board of Education Capital Budget, which would result in $182,500 in cuts. Another $680,000 would be trimmed by deferring the installation of a generator in Town Hall, and by deferring certain Board of Education priority one capital projects, including the new Ox Ridge gym floor and the proposed athletic storage facility at the high school. The remaining $455,425, it was decided, would be made up by increasig the mill rate from the originally accepted 15.73 to 15.80, a 2.87 percent increase over this fiscal year.

In New Canaan, no such measures have been taken to this point, but according to Mallozzi, if the proposed cuts are passed before the adjournment of the state legislative session on May 4,

“Everything would be on the table. I’d hate to see us change the mill rate, but we’ll have to revisit it and maybe cut back on spending in other categories.”

“We don’t control what the state’s doing,” New Canaan Chief Financial Officer Dawn Norton said. “All we can do is plead our case in Hartford, which is what First Selectman Mallozzi is doing.”

justin.papp@scni.com; newcanaannewsonline.com