TERRY COWGILL

So much of the current public education reform talk at the Capitol centers around changing the way the state funds public schools or whether smaller districts should be compelled to merge with larger ones.

But lurking beneath the overriding focus on school consolidation and economic justice within Gov. Ned Lamont’s revised version of Senate Bill 874 is some language that would significantly change the way the state’s so called “endowed academies” do business.

For the uninitiated, endowed town academies are ostensibly private secondary schools that have a public mission. The academies, which are essentially recognized by the state as public schools, were built in the 19th century before public education really took hold. The towns they serve never built their own public high schools or joined a regional public school district for grades 9-12. The sending towns pay a tuition based on the number of students each sends to the academies.

There are three such academies remaining in Connecticut: Norwich Free Academy; Woodstock Academy; and the Gilbert School. Bacon Academy in Colchester used to be a town academy but as best I can tell, it gave up and became a public high school about 100 years ago. There are about two dozen town academies in northern New England. Disclosure: for more than five years, I worked as development director for the trust that owns the Gilbert School.

It all sounds fine on the surface — private schools operating independently and billing the towns for their services. But there is one major source of discord — and it’s not terribly difficult to understand. Millions of dollars in public funds go into these schools annually and, aside from token minority representation on some of the academies’ governing bodies, local taxpayers have precious little say in how those dollars are spent.

It was — and remains — a constant source of friction in Winsted, for example, where the Gilbert School has been located since its founding in 1895 as a result of a bequest from wealthy clock manufacturer and anti-Catholic bigot William L. Gilbert. Woodstock and Norwich are older but have similar histories. Norwich, however, is the one with all the money and actually uses its $70-million endowment to substantially subsidize operating costs. All three say they pride themselves on their “independence.”

As you might expect, the town-gown tension is focused around money and control. The sending towns must negotiate tuition agreements with the academies. Taxpayers and public officials want to see restraint, while academy trustees want to fully fund everything under their roofs. Acrimony often ensues. Misery becomes the order of the day and because they need each other, neither party has a whole lot of options. If worse comes to worst, there is mediation — a mechanism whose outcome pleases no one.

In Lamont’s bill, however, the emphasis is on increased transparency. The legislation would, for example, require that representatives from the local board of education of each sending town be allowed to sit on the academies’ governing boards, make those boards subject to provisions of the state’s freedom of information law, and compel them to submit a certified audit to the state education commissioner of “all revenues from public and private sources and expenditures related” to the governing board’s function.

The reaction from two of the academies has bordered on outrage. “Two years ago Wildcat nation helped to defeat legislation which would have undermined Norwich Free Academy’s independence by mandating public representation on the Board of Trustees,” a statement posted on the academy’s website said. “We will vigorously oppose this legislation through every avenue possible.”

Gilbert Head of School Tony Serio (my old boss and very good man) added that the bill would “significantly alter the school’s 123-year relationship with (Winsted) and the state, create unfunded mandates for the school, result in increased tuition for sending towns, and not advance the educational interests of the state.” Meanwhile, the public school district in Winsted favors the bill.

While I do not envy the position the leaders of the academies find themselves in, my sympathy is limited. Unlike traditional private schools, massive amounts of public moneys flow into the town academies. And those funds don’t just come from local taxpayers. In 1999, for example, Gilbert embarked on a $10-million renovation project to upgrade its physical plant and swung a deal to get the state to pay for $6.5 million of it.

In a bid to expand its cramped campus, Woodstock Academy has purchased the property of the nearby Hyde School using a $15-million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As NFA made clear in its statement, this is the second time in three years that legislators in Hartford have tried to wring more transparency out of the academies. Given the support of senior legislative leadership for Governor’s Bill 874, this might be the year lawmakers get what they want. If so, it will be a signal to all independent schools that take large sums of government money. If you eat the fruit of the poisonous tree, you should prepare for the worst.

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 thenews@hotmail.com.

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