By Kathleen Megan
When Scott Lawrence and his wife moved to Connecticut 10 years ago, they chose to settle in Wilton — largely because of the excellent school system.
“We could have chosen anywhere,” Lawrence said, but “Wilton has an amazing school system. There’s accountability and control.”
But now Lawrence and thousands of other Connecticut residents are alarmed by what they perceive as a threat to their children’s’ education posed by several bills under consideration in the legislature, including one from Gov. Ned Lamont, which they believe would force or coerce communities into regionalizing their school systems or sharing superintendents.
Another Wilton parent, Bill Lalor, started a Facebook group called “Hands Off Our Schools” which now boasts more than 4,000 members from all over the state and has helped fuel a growing chorus of dissent.
Hundreds of people have written letters to the legislature’s education committee expressing their opposition to the regionalization bills, and busloads of parents, educators and students are expected to show up today to testify in person at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
“I’ve been amazed the last three or four weeks,” Lalor said of the opposition he’s seen to the proposals, which he said cuts across ideological and party lines. “It obviously struck a nerve. It just went bananas. We didn’t have to do anything to spread it.”
Lamont attempted to reassure Wilton and other Fairfield County communities earlier this week when he visited Weston Town Hall and met with the leaders of nine area towns to assure them that his plan uses incentives.
“It uses a carrot, not stick,” Lamont told local leaders on Tuesday night. “I’m not doing anything to force any of the folks here to give up any of the local control they have over their own schools because I know how important local control over schools is and what that means.”
But town leaders, whether in Fairfield County or elsewhere, are not convinced. They point to “sticks” they see in the governor’s bill, as well as noting that even if the governor has good intentions, it’s the legislature that will make the final decision about what becomes law.
“I told him, ‘I don’t think you have any carrots in this bill, you only have sticks,’” said Lynne Vanderslice, first selectwoman of Wilton.
The three regionalization bills causing all this angst were proposed by Democrats and motivated by the state’s dire financial situation — a $3.7 billion deficit over the next two fiscal years — and the desire to create greater efficiencies and cost-savings in both state and local budgets.
“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,” Lamont’s budget documents says.
Small districts — defined as having fewer than 10,000 residents, fewer than 2,000 students or with only one or two elementary schools — that have their own superintendent would be required to “receive direction concerning the supervision of [its] schools” from another district’s superintendent or name a ‘chief executive officer’ to oversee the schools, according to Lamont’s proposal, Senate Bill 874.
“The Commissioner of Education may withhold (funding) from any municipality … that continues to employ its own superintendent,” the proposed legislation says.
Questioned about whether this was a “stick” or penalty, Lamont said during a news conference at the Weston Town Hall, “I’ll take a look at that but nobody says you have to share a superintendent. That’s totally at your discretion. At our discretion is how much funding you provide for each of these schools … but look, if that’s considered heavy handed maybe we do it a different way.”
Another key portion of Lamont’s bill would give priority for bonding to larger schools and districts that pool resources, share superintendents and back-office functions.
For instance, Lamont told the Fairfield officials, some of the communities ringing Waterbury have declining populations. If some of those schools took in students from Waterbury, which is overcrowded, Lamont said, “then I’d be more favorably inclined to provide the bonding they need.”
While Lamont calls such measures incentives, others see them more as penalties on towns that did not choose to regionalize in some way.
Lalor said the governor’s proposal “sounds like coercion to me. There’s very little difference between forced regionalization and coerced regionalization. We know there are strings that the state controls with respect to town funding.”
Another aspect of the bill that is troubling for some is the establishment of a Commission on Shared School Services to develop a plan “for the redistricting or consolidation of school services and school districts.”
That language raises concerns for Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns. “We appreciate that he’s not looking to force regionalization or consolidation” Gara said, but the draft bill makes it appear that redistricting and consolidation “is a foregone conclusion.”
“We would like to see the bill passed in terms of facilitating redistricting and consolidation where it’s proven to achieve cost savings and preserve the quality of education,” she said.
The 17-member shared services commission would include legislative and gubernatorial appointments and would be required to submit a report by Dec. 1, 2020, but would continue to operate through 2027.
Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton and a member of the legislature’s education committee, said she doesn’t support the establishment of a commission of “political appointees elected by nobody to determine what will happen next in the way of redistricting or consolidation of schools.”
Lavielle said she sees nothing wrong with having a conversation about regionalization or shared services, but “to have a commission go forward with this, the only way it’s feasible for me is if you completely exclude the idea of mandatory or forced regionalization and if you also exclude the idea of penalties for any town that doesn’t do it.”
The other bills put forward by Democrats include Senate Bill 738, proposed by Sen. President Martin Looney, which would force municipalities with populations smaller than 40,000 to consolidate with another district if they are not already regionalized.
The bill calls for the creation of a commission that would develop a plan to carry out the regional consolidation of those districts. Only 24 out of the 169 cities and towns in Connecticut have populations that exceed 40,000, according to 2017 state population estimates.
The second proposal — Senate Bill No. 457 — would require any district with a student population of fewer than 2,000 students to join a new or existing regional school district so that the total student population of the expanded district is more than 2,000.
If a district is not joining a regional district, the bill says, it must inform the state Department of Education in writing about why it is not doing so. This bill was proposed by Sen. Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, and Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague.
For many local leaders and residents, the prospect of forced or coerced regionalization feels like an attack on a basic tenet of Connecticut small town life: the ownership they feel for their schools.
“When you have a small town, the school is your culture,” said Vanderslice. “We’re the Wilton Warriors. It’s a lot of who we are as a community. It’s very school-focused. If we became Wilton-Weston, we wouldn’t be the Wilton Warriors anymore.”
While opposition to the bills is statewide, it is particularly strong in the town of Wilton, where the median family income is $217,415, according to the 2000 census, and where, according to 2016 data from the state Office of Policy and Management, per person spending by local government ranks fourth in the state, at $7,094.
Given the overall wealth of the town, it’s not surprising that Wilton’s cost per student, at $20,377, is substantially higher than the state average of $16,988. But Scott Lawrence said, as a small town, everyone gets a say about how the money is being spent.
“You don’t feel like dollars are being tossed into the ether,” said Lawrence, whose two sons are in the fourth and sixth grades. “Nobody likes to pay high taxes, but if you see the value, you’re OK with it.”
However, he said, “Let’s assume all of a sudden we have a Norwalk-Wilton district: It would be really hard to evaluate what we’re getting because the control is now diluted among completely different communities.”
“It’s not that Wilton doesn’t want their kids to go to school in Norwalk,” he added. “That misses the point.”
Rather, it’s that “parents appreciate the way Wilton runs its system. I don’t know anything about Norwalk’s system … I don’t know how they run their schools. It’s a choice made when families move to Wilton, buying into Wilton as a community, Wilton as a school community.”
Small town superintendents and leaders say that Lamont and lawmakers in the General Assembly also may not be aware of how extensively the districts are already collaborating and sharing services even if they aren’t formally regionalized.
Patricia Buell, superintendent of Brooklyn schools where there are just over 900 students and the cost per pupil is just under the statewide average at $16,107, said six of the communities in the northeast corner have a shared collaborative health insurance plan and work together to get quotes on fuel.
In addition, Buell said the district works with EASTCONN, a regional education service center, which will get bids for several districts on Chrome books, food, paper, supples and others items.
“You shop around,” she said. “It really is cost savings.”
In addition, rather than hire a full-time occupational therapist or physical therapist, the district will contract through EASTCONN for part time help. She also collaborates with other districts on transportation costs for special education students and sometimes on professional development for staff.
“When they said these small towns are inefficient — it was kind of a slam to me,” Buell said. “It felt like, you don’t know what we’re doing here to make a broad statement like that.”
“From a distance, you might say, ‘Oh my God, Brooklyn, how can they possibly afford to do what they are doing? It must cost so much.’ We use our resources wisely and try to look for every savings we can.”
Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said today’s hearing will “provide a teachable moment to help legislators have a fuller understanding of what’s happening in local districts currently … around sharing services, around collaboration and to try to build on those best practices rather than a prescriptive legislative determination of what the exact right size of a school district would be.”
She said legislators will hear not only about cost-efficiencies but how about how smaller districts are collaborating to improve the educational experience for students. She said 25 districts now employ part time superintendents.
Like the town of Brooklyn, the town of Putnam is also collaborating and sharing services in myriad ways.
“There is a tremendous amount of collaboration and camaraderie among the superintendents in the area,” Putnam Superintendent Bill Hull said. “We are always trying to find ways in which we can save money.”
Michael Morrill, chairman of the Putnam school board said that if the governor provided real incentives to towns to collaborate it would help. For instance, Morrill said, the state could allow the towns to keep a percentage of whatever savings they achieve through consolidating certain services.
Amid the hundreds of letters from opponents of Lamont’s bill that were posted online Thursday afternoon in advance of today’s public hearing was a lone letter of support from Gail Deutsch of Canton. Deutsch, a former teacher, said her daughter benefited from an agreement between Canton and Simsbury that allowed her to take Latin in high school when it wasn’t offered at her home school.
When people hear about regionalization, they can have a “knee jerk reaction: don’t touch my school,” Deutsch said in an interview Thursday, “but there can be benefits from shared resources … There could be better ways to do things.”
If districts combine resources, they might be able to collaborate to offer subjects that a very small district couldn’t on its own. “There seems to be many opportunities to be gained by thoughtful regionalization,” she added.
In an effort to provide bipartisan, research-based information, the Connecticut School Finance Project conducted what it calls a “comprehensive review of research” regarding the academic and financial costs and benefits of district consolidation and school consolidation.
Michael Morton, spokesman for the project, said the review of dozens of articles related to school and school district size, consolidation and regionalization, produced “no conclusive finding on the impacts, positive or negative, of school consolidation on student outcomes.”
However, he said that research does show that economies of scale are likely to occur when smaller districts combine to form a single larger district.
“Although there is a lack of agreement in academia on the methodologies for determining the most efficient school district size,” the report said, “there is substantial evidence — across research methodologies — that cost efficiency is expected to increase when smaller districts consolidate.”
While there is no conclusive evidence that school district consolidation positively or negatively impacts students’ academic performances, Morton said, there is evidence that access to advanced placement courses, elective courses, and athletics is improved by consolidating very small school districts.
The report says that in studies where student performance was found to be negatively correlated with school district size, “other variables, such as student income and student-teacher ratios, have a much stronger effect on student achievement than size of school districts.”
An analysis published in 2010 comparing Connecticut students in similar districts found that those attending a regional high school outperformed their community high school counterparts in 15 of 16 pairs using SAT 1 outcomes.
Leaders of small districts, however, see benefits for kids in attending a smaller school.
Bill Hull, superintendent in Putnam where there are 1,203 students, said that “as you take kids and put them into larger schools, they become more isolated.”
In smaller schools, he said, kids grow up alongside each other. “There is a sense of family. Kids don’t slip through the cracks.”
In addition, he said, activities like sports become more limited as the competition increases at a larger school for slots on the team. “A child who was once on the basketball team tries out for a larger team and can’t make it,” he said. “That reinforces failure.”