HARTFORD, CT — It took four hours, but Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, finally reached a point in an all-day public hearing on school regionalization where he had to address “the elephant in the room.”
“I think there’s a discussion we’re not having here in Connecticut. It’s a discussion we have not addressed since ‘Brown v. Board,” McCrory said. “We have not come up with any solution.”
The comments came hours after testimony in opposition to three Senate bills and one House bill that seek in some way to get local school districts to consolidate, regionalize, or share services.
Hundreds of parents, school board members, and students descended on the Legislative Office Building on Friday to offer their opinion on the controversial bills.
The effort to get local school districts to consolidate and share services is being driven by the state’s two-year, $3.7 billion budget deficit and decades of unfunded pension liabilities, which continue those deficits into the future.
Unable to cut more spending at the state level, state lawmakers are looking to municipalities and school districts to find efficiency in local budgets. Some of the bills recommend consolidating districts with fewer than 2,000 students, and other bills, like the one Gov. Ned Lamont proposed, would penalize school districts by withholding ECS funds if they didn’t offer up solutions.
McCrory said Connecticut has been “cruising for 60 years and now we have a piece of legislation that may or may not address the concerns.”
He said he understands that people move to communities because the education is outstanding, “but there’s a reason why and we haven’t dealt with it.”
Rep. Gerald Reyes, D-Waterbury, was the first to testify in favor of the legislation after hours of testimony from mostly rural and suburban school officials in opposition.
McCrory said people’s view of Connecticut’s education system “depends on your zip code.”
Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, thanked Reyes for supporting the legislation.
Lemar said the urban communities across the state feel the same way because Connecticut is one of the few states in the country that uses its municipal lines to determine its school districts.
Those municipal lines were based on “decades of racially restrictive land covenants, followed by red-lining, followed by exclusionary zoning,” Lemar said. “All of those policies were done purposefully.”
Trying to beat back the narrative of “forced consolidation” from communities like Wilton, New Canaan, Ridgefield, Darien, Weston, and other Fairfield County towns, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw said Lamont’s proposal is not “forced” consolidation.
She said they are looking for a “voluntary” consolidation of resources and will offer support to those who do.
However, Lamont’s proposal would also penalize districts that don’t begin sharing services.
“Small local school districts that choose to have inefficient governance structures, and too many expensive superintendents, can no longer expect the state to bear the costs of these decisions,” the budget says. “Under this budget, a small local district’s decision to retain rather than share a superintendent may result in a reduction in a district’s ECS grant, after July 1, 2020.”
Betsy Gara, executive director of the Council of Small Towns, said the language in the some of the proposals is specific to redistricting and consolidation of districts. She said the concerns of small towns are not overblown.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, proposed a bill that would force school districts in towns with less than 40,000 residents to consolidate with a neighboring district.
That bill would force the regionalization of a large number of towns in the state, merging their school districts with larger municipalities or cities based on the probate court map.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff and Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, proposed a bill that 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.”
Duff said his bill would not force school districts to do anything. It would simply require schools with fewer than 2,000 students to tell the Department of Education why they can’t regionalize or share services to any degree.
“There’s nothing in any of the bills that talks about busing or closing schools or any kind of Draconian mergers, or anything that would be viewed as taking away local control,” Duff said Friday. “All it does is say ‘are there economies of scale or can you consolidate any back office functions?’”
Duff said the smaller school districts that are losing population still retain a large amount of ECS funding, which takes money away from growing and even stagnant school districts. He said that’s why the state needs to have this conversation.
But it’s not an easy conversation.
“There’s been a purposeful effort to misinform, to fear monger, and to stir the pot especially by some elected officials,” Duff said.
For small towns looking to share services there are many obstacles and more questions than answers in most cases.
What happens if towns want to share a superintendent? Whose school board would control the hiring process? How much would each school pay for superintendent services?
Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell said every agreement is “unique” and every one they’ve seen from districts that share superintendents is different. There are also 25 part-time school superintendents.
She said there are 166 school districts in Connecticut, a number of regional education service centers, 23 charter schools, and three endowed academies. There are 154 school superintendents, which means there are situations where schools are employing a part-time superintendent for a small district or are choosing to share superintendents.
She said there are some superintendents in the state who report to four or five school boards.
There are also 39 school districts in Connecticut that have only one school, an additional 35 districts with only two schools, and two of the regional districts have only two schools.
In some of these small school districts with only one school where towns are fiscally strapped, “these kids are getting short changed,” Wentzell said. And by the time they reach high school “they are unable to keep up.”
Voluntown First Selectwoman Tracey Hanson said that’s absolutely not true.
“Our SBAC scores are high. Our kids are receiving a quality education,” Hanson said.
Voluntown educates 389 kids.
“I’m afraid that forced consolidation could undermine the quality of our kids education,” she added.
Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi, who is also the president of the Council of Small Towns, said education is why people want to move to Connecticut.
“Of all the things that can be fixed in the state of Connecticut why is it that this Capitol wants to zero in on education?” Marconi said. “We’ve got a good play going.”
Marconi said there are real estate agents telling him that they can’t sign contracts because of the threat of regionalization.
There’s another group of communities that have done as much as they can to share services.
Region 4 Superintendent Ruth Levy reports to five school boards, three towns, and a 33-member shared governance council.
“The governing budget is very complicated,” Levy said. “And it becomes very inefficient even when its saving taxpayers significant amounts of money.”
There are 17 regional school districts in Connecticut. However, the state doesn’t allow them to be recognized as a school district and instead forces them to maintain separate boards for each elementary school plus a fourth for the regional schools.
Essex Board of Education Chairman Lon Seidman said simply expanding the definition of what a school district is would give towns more flexibility in developing cooperative agreements. But if they use the current definitions, any further consolidation would actually cost some of the towns money.