HARTFORD, CT — Gov. Ned Lamont Wednesday submitted new legislation that backs off his earlier call for penalties for school districts that fail to regionalize some of their back-office services, and would instead use construction bonds to incentivize schools to share services and cut costs.
Lamont’s new proposal comes a day after state Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, and education officials from several small towns held a press conference to urge passage of their own regionalization bill, SB 572, which includes ideas they have been working on locally for several years as they have struggled to consolidate services in the face of state Education Department restrictions.
Lamont submitted revised language to the General Assembly on his proposal encouraging shared services in Connecticut schools.
He said the new proposal was developed in collaboration with stakeholders and addresses concerns raised by members of many communities while continuing to encourage collaboration and shared services among schools. The governor said that he agrees with many constituents who do not want their school districts to be forced to consolidate operations, and is hopeful that the modifications to his proposal address those concerns.
“Sharing certain back-office administrative services and purchasing costs is more efficient for certain schools, and my bill is intended to highlight and incentivize those efficiencies,” Lamont said.
Lamont’s initial language drew the ire of residents from many small towns, including many in Fairfield County, who were concerned about maintaining their districts’ independence and autonomy.
“I’ve also heard the concern that school districts need independence to make the decisions they feel are best,” Lamont said.
Betsy Gara, executive director of the Council of Small Towns, had expressed concern about the initial language but Wednesday said she can support the new language.
“The redrafted proposal focuses on assisting school districts and towns exploring options to collaborate and share services in ways that will produce cost savings and enhance the quality of education,” Gara said.
Needleman told reporters Tuesday that the legislature should consider backing SB 572, which would allow multiple boards of education in a regional school district to act together and have that collaboration be recognized by the state as a Local Education Agency (LEA).
Needleman’s bill also would require the state Education Department to develop a report on best practices for sharing educational services.
The new language in Lamont’s bill also calls for a bipartisan commission on shared school services, made up of education stakeholders. The commission would have no power to force the adoption of its recommendations, but would be expected to look around and outside Connecticut to offer information about how other districts share services.
The carrot approach is different than some of the stick approaches that caused concern from parents, students, and officials in some Connecticut towns.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, proposed a bill that would require 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, but rather would 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.
One difference between Lamont’s revised bill and Needleman’s is that Needleman’s legislation is specific to regional school districts and Lamont’s includes every district.
There are 17 regional school districts in Connecticut, but the state doesn’t allow those regional school districts to manage all the schools in each member town as a single district. State law instead forces the towns maintain separate boards for elementary schools plus a board for the regional schools — typically a high school and a middle school serving all the member towns in the regional district.
At Needleman’s press conference Tuesday, 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 towns more money.
“Let the towns voluntarily work together,” Seidman said. “Town officials want and will find efficiencies if the incentives to do so are there and the obstacles are removed.”
At the moment there are plenty of obstacles.
“We’ve discovered over the years, the more money we put into our shared services budget, the more complicated it gets,” Seidman said.
Seidman said while Essex, Deep River, and Chester are included in a regional school district, state mandates require them to operate five separate boards of education.
“The result has been, every time we try to put more into this, it’s becoming more and more complicated to translate what we’re doing back to the state,” Seidman said. “What we’re asking for is to allow these entities to be considered as local education agencies, allowing them to be recognized as school districts that these local boards are creating and operating together.”
Current law restricts this type of coordination.
“Right now, no one is doing sizable regionalism because of these restrictions. We feel this is a good first step for small towns struggling to meet their obligations,” Seidman said.