You know you’ve hit rock bottom when the state of Connecticut has to come in and clean up your municipal mess. Contrary to popular belief, the state hates to pilot the local ship. It’s expensive, it’s a distraction and it evinces the supercilious paternalism of big brother.
But judging by news coverage and social media, most residents of the Litchfield County town of Winchester, commonly known as Winsted, are breathing a sigh of relief now that the state Department of Education has decided once and for all to ride into town and assume management of Winsted’s miserable school system.
Some observers, including yours truly, had hoped the state would take over the entire beleaguered town. After all, officials in both Town Hall and school headquarters have been lurching from crisis to crisis for years. From the theft of millions of dollars by the town’s finance director to $720,000 in missing special education funds to a string of firings and resignations among senior school district administrators, the few capable people left in town government have been overwhelmed by the chaos and ineptitude that has surrounded them.
In November 2013, the state Department of Education was investigating the town for failing to meet the state’s minimum budget requirement, while the superintendent told parents and taxpayers the town’s public schools might close by Christmas for lack of cash.
In justifying his support of the takeover, state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, the West Hartford Democrat who co-chairs the General Assembly’s education committee, told The Courant that Winsted is “facing more challenges than any district I’ve witnessed while in the legislature . . . I mean, everything has been going wrong . . . It’s a horrendously mismanaged district and we’re hoping the receiver can straighten things out.”
And that’s saying a lot. Four years ago, the state Education Department took over the schools in Windham, a hardscrabble town similar to Winsted. Pushed by the General Assembly, the state dissolved the Hartford Board of Education and took control of its schools in 1997 — the first such takover in state history. And of course, the state began its ill-fated seizure of the troubled Bridgeport system in 2011 — an action that was later overturned on a technicality by the state Supreme Court.
So Fleischmann, who has been in office since 1995, knows whereof he speaks. He’s seen his share of “horrendously mismanaged” school districts. And so have I. Disclosure: for more than five years, I worked as the development director for The Gilbert School, Winsted’s quasi-public junior-senior high school, and saw firsthand the incompetence and turmoil that precipitated the state’s drastic but justifiable action. Fortunately, the emerging Gilbert has been in much better hands than the town’s public system and so will not be directly subjected to the strong arm of the state.
In justifying the takeover, a Department of Education spokesperson cited an “egregious lack of fiscal oversight” and mismanagement, if not actual criminal activity. But the best rationale for seizing control is to protect the district’s 1,000 or so students, 60 percent of whom qualify for free-or-reduced price lunches and almost 20 percent of whom require special education services.
Ironically, the Winsted Taxpayers Association, whose mantra is “lower taxes and less government,” will instead see higher taxes and more government. Inasmuch as the town is broke and taxpayers wouldn’t approve increased education spending anyway, the receiver appointed by the education commissioner will now have oversight of the school budget. That means the state itself will impose large tax increases in a town that for years has had a flat budget that barely meets the state minimum budget requirements, if that.
Flat budgets have resulted in lower wages in the Winsted schools than in surrounding communities, which makes competent people hard to attract and retain, which has in part caused the disaster the town is now facing.
Message to the town’s naysayers: you’ve made your bed; now you must lie in it.
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