Gov. Ned Lamont is proposing a commission to develop a plan to regionalize school districts in Connecticut, throwing his hat in the ring with two other highly-contentious forced regionalization bills from fellow Democrats.
According Senate Bill 874, the Commission on Shared School Services “shall develop a plan for redistricting or consolidating school services and school districts.” The bill is part of the governor’s budget.
The Commission on Shared School Services sounds soft, but legislation comes with a big stick, including withholding education funds for towns with less than 10,000 residents that don’t share superintendents and offering less state funding for school repair and construction for towns that don’t regionalize their districts.
The Commission’s final plan will be developed and delivered to the governor, the State Board of Education and legislative committees by December 2020.
In his budget, Lamont wrote “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 those decisions.”
The governor’s bill reduces the amount the state will pay for school repairs and construction for districts that don’t regionalize services. Currently the state will cover between 20 and 80 percent of school repair and constructions costs. The governor reduces that to between 5 and 70 percent.
If the district regionalizes, however, the state will cover from 25 up to 95 percent of repair and construction costs.
The threat of further reductions in state education funds comes as the governor’s budget also accelerates the reduction of school funding for a number of municipalities and seeks to force municipalities to pay for part of Connecticut’s teacher pension costs, amounting to over $1 million per year for some towns.
Ultimately, however, the goal of the Commission on Shared School Services would be to develop a school regionalization plan, something which has already caused great concern and consternation among families in the state.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, proposed a bill forcing schools in towns with less than 40,000 residents to merge with larger school districts. Looney’s bill was met with public outcry and even opposition from two senators within his own party, but the bill had the backing of some Democrats on the state Education Committee.
Senators. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, and Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, also proposed a bill forcing schools with less than 2,000 students to merge with larger districts.
Both of those bills – along with the governor’s bill – will be up for debate at public hearing before the Education Committee on March 1, but the governor’s bill is already being flagged by some Republicans as more troublesome because it leaves the question of forced regionalization on the table for several years as the Commission develops its plan and submits it to the governor.
And unlike the other bills, the governor’s bill is fully drafted.
Testifying before the Appropriations Committee, the governor’s budget chief Melissa McCaw said the Commission would set expectations for districts so towns would know the administration “is serious.”
“The second key component of the approach with the legislation is really setting some key milestones and expectations for districts so that they understand this is serious,” McCaw said.
Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, and ranking member of the Appropriations Committee asked McCaw if the question of whether or not the Commission could force regionalization was still open.
“It is, absolutely,” McCaw responded.
Lavielle previously told the Education Committee that Looney’s proposal was causing “great distress” in her district, which could conceivably see the Wilton or Westport school districts merged with Norwalk.
The timeline for merging superintendents and districts, however, may be a bit rushed. Often these mergers can take years and the governor’s bill doesn’t even allow for two.
The push for school regionalization has moved to the forefront of politics in Connecticut as the legislature and governor try to deal with on-going budget deficits.
State education funding and municipal aid is the largest non-fixed cost in state government and therefore represents the largest potential source of savings by lowering the amount of money state government distributes back to municipalities for things like education.
Some lawmakers say regionalizing school districts will save districts money, thereby necessitating fewer state dollars. But, many of the wealthier and smaller districts which would be affected by this legislation already receive minimal state funding.
Wilton, for example, receives $3,274 per student from the state, whereas Hartford receives upwards of $17,806 per student, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Opponents believe regionalizing districts will lead to decreased property values and children being bussed into other towns and cities for school.
Sen. Looney said he was happy to see the governor’s regionalization effort in the budget.