If there’s one thing I’ve learned from covering local and state government on and off for the last 23 years, it’s that breaking up fiefdoms is a terribly difficult thing to do. And nowhere is that simple truth more evident than in the reaction to a couple of bills floating around the Capitol that propose to force smaller school districts to consolidate with larger ones.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, has put forward legislation that would create a commission to “implement regional consolidation of school districts” with a population of less than 40,000. The new districts would be configured similar to the way the state’s 54 probate court districts were drawn and established in 2011.
Almost half the bill is taken up with language about competing “bargaining units” between the merged districts — which sort of tells you everything you need to know about the power of public-sector unions in the state.
Looney’s bill is sweeping in its scope, for as CTNewsJunkie’s Jack Kramer has reported, only 24 municipalities in Connecticut have a population of more than 40,000. That leaves all the others susceptible to Looney’s consolidation plan, with the exception of towns such as mine that belong to one of the 17 K-12 regional school districts all of which, no matter how small, would be exempted from the Looney mandate.
A second, much more modest, proposal has been filed by Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, and Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague. It would “require any school district with a student population of fewer than 2,000 students to join a new or an existing regional school district so that the total student population of such new or expanded regional school district is greater 2,000 students.”
Both bills have rankled the feathers of lawmakers in Hartford. Conservatives dislike it for obvious reasons. The libertarian-leaning Yankee Institute has argued that Looney’s proposed legislation would “destroy the local control of schools,” while columnist Chris Powell insists that “regionalizing will give the cities and the larger inner suburbs political and financial control of the new school districts.” And not surprisingly, the Connecticut Council of Small Towns came out against it, arguing that achieving cost savings is hardly a slam dunk.
But some progressives are pushing back as well. Two Fairfield County senators and a representative who just defeated longtime Republicans, Sens. Will Haskell of Westport, and Alex Bergstein of Greenwich, and Rep. Lucy Dathan, D-New Canaan, released a statement opposing Looney’s bill.
I’ve never been one to worry too much over local control of schools. Education spending typically comprises two-thirds of municipal spending and about a quarter of state spending. That’s an awful of money. So it goes without saying that we need to wring some efficiencies out of the system.
The more salient question for me is whether regionalization will save money and/or result in superior outcomes. As for the former, I’m slightly skeptical. Some mergers are no-brainers. In my corner of the state, for example, Falls Village and Cornwall both have fewer than 75 students and the schools are only six miles apart, so students would not be subjected to lengthy bus rides if the schools merged and one of them closed. Cornwall has a relatively new facility and plenty of excess capacity. A merger would not only save money but would enhance educational offerings through better economies of scale and more appropriate age groupings.
On a far large scale, however, it remains to be seen how much savings are to be had. The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving published a thorough study last year and concluded “that a district with 2,500 to 3,000 students may be both cost-effective and foster educational achievement.”
There is currently a movement in Delaware to consolidate that state’s school districts into three countywide districts. The state has a population of slightly less than a million people, but has 19 districts to serve a student population of only 156,000.
A task force created by the Delaware General Assembly concluded the savings would be minimal, in part because, even though there would only be one superintendent, 18 regional assistant superintendents and directors would need to be hired.
In addition, labor unions would likely insist that salaries in lower-paying districts be “leveled-up” to match those in the higher paying districts, further offsetting the savings achieved through transportation, purchasing, health insurance and buying-power efficiencies.
So let’s say Looney’s bill becomes law and wealthy Wilton must merge with not-so-wealthy Norwalk. If Wilton’s teachers make more than their colleagues in Norwalk, then it’s obvious that the union representing Wilton’s teachers would never accept a cut in pay. So the teachers in larger Norwalk would then insist on leveling up to the new standard set by Wilton. Bingo: lots of savings lost — maybe millions, depending on the size and difference in salary scales between the merged systems.
This is yet another reason why it seems that largely urban legislators are behind the consolidation craze. If the Looney legislation passes, teachers in the cities will likely make more money and the tax base supporting education in those cities will grow to include wealthy property owners in the suburbs. And, of course, that’s precisely the same reason suburbs and rural areas are opposed to the idea. What does the public education system in Prospect stand to gain from merging with its counterpart in Waterbury? Nothing that I can see.
The Delaware task force concluded that there could be “some significant financial benefit to consolidation of two or three contiguous districts” that have similar salaries and fewer people on the payroll.
That is likely what Duff’s and Osten’s proposal would do. It is far less sweeping and would affect only smaller districts which would likely benefit from a merger with a neighboring system through savings and enhanced programs. In other words, a glorified system of shared services — a concept we can all agree on. Plus, the Duff-Osten bill appears to leave open the possibility that some districts could claim hardship and receive a waiver from the state Education Department. I’d say Sen. Looney can take his ambitious proposal and put it in the circular file. It’s going nowhere fast.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at email@example.com.
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