Malloy's school regionalization plan criticized
HARTFORD, Conn.—Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposal to encourage small Connecticut school districts to regionalize or else risk losing some state aid is raising concerns among some local leaders who argue that their towns are being unfairly penalized for just being little.
The legislation, starting fiscal year 2016, cuts state education aid -- ranging from about $100 to $500 per student -- for school districts with fewer than 1,000 students and per-student costs that are at least 10 percent higher than the statewide average. Malloy's revised $20 billion budget plan sets aside $300,000 to help the districts in the meantime come up with ideas for regional cooperation and efficiency.
The Democratic governor argues that his proposal is a common-sense approach to sharing expenses and reducing burdensome local property taxes, which help cover the lion's share of local education costs in many small towns. Officials maintain they've already considered regionalization and it doesn't always make sense.
"School districts already have an incentive to look for ways to consolidate and reduce costs because their budgets are stretched thin," said Betsy Gara, the public policy director for the Connecticut Council of Small Towns. "To penalize them simply for being a small school doesn't make sense."
Malloy's proposal was tucked into his sweeping, 163-page public education overhaul bill unveiled last month. It has been largely overshadowed by more high-profile aspects of the legislation, such as revamping state teacher tenure rules.
In an interview on Friday with The Associated Press, Malloy read off a list of towns across the state he has identified with small student populations and well-paid school administrators. In Norfolk, for example, he said there are 160 students, grades K-6, complete with a superintendent, principal and school board. Malloy estimated it costs about $19,000 a year to educate each child.
"Everyone's complaining about property taxes and for a lot of the communities that we're talking about, the biggest expense is education. And I'm trying to generate a discussion about this subject," Malloy said. "What we're saying is, we'll give you money, we're going to give you money to sit down and have some serious discussions about how you save taxpayers money."
Malloy said he'd like to ultimately see fewer school administrators.
"We're paying these folks beaucoup money," he said. "I've looked at some of the salaries. You've got some superintendents of some very small districts making as much money as superintendents of big districts. That's just reality."
Gara, however, said she believes the Malloy administration is making a lot of assumptions about small school districts and their administrative costs, calling the governor's plan a one-size-fits-all proposal. She said superintendents in small districts are not being paid upwards of $200,000, as some are paid in larger districts.
According to Gian-Carl Casa, undersecretary for legislative affairs at the Office of Policy and Management, the governor's budget office, there are currently 18 towns that have fewer than 1,000 pupils and spend over 110 percent of the average student expenditure. OPM's list includes Bridgewater, Canaan, Chaplin, Cornwall, Goshen, Hampton, Kent, Lyme, Morris, Norfolk, North Canaan, Preston, Roxbury, Salisbury, Scotland, Sharon, Warren and Washington.
Seventeen of those towns are already part of regional school districts, with the exception of Preston.
He said the administration is aware of the concerns with the proposal and plans to work with the Education Committee to resolve them.
State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, the ranking Senate Republican leader on the General Assembly's Education Committee, has the Region One School District in her legislative district. She questions why Region One towns could risk losing state aid, considering they have a combined high school, one superintendent and one central office.
But each town in the regional school district, which includes Canaan, Cornwall, Kent, North Canaan, Salisbury and Sharon, has an autonomous board of education and maintains an elementary school that offers pre-kindergarten through grade eight.
"They are a situation we are looking to exempt from this (bill)," said Boucher, who said has been talking with Malloy administration officials about possible changes to the proposal.
"I've always been one that likes autonomy as much as possible at the local level and I think instead of being penalized, or forced or mandated, they should be encouraged through a carrot, which would be a financial benefit or maybe more support on the part of the state if they do this," Boucher said. "Otherwise, if (the towns) want to take the financial hit and their local taxpayers are willing to do it, then it's up to them, I think, to do that. I still think smaller is better in education."
State Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, has two regional school districts located in her legislative district. She thinks the towns in those districts should not be penalized under Malloy's bill.
"I'm not there yet until that language is clarified," she said. "For me to be happy, that language has to be clarified."
Willis maintains that regionalism isn't always the right answer for small towns.
"When you have a small town, like Cornwall or Falls Village, they're not close to each other," said Willis, raising the question of how far a child in kindergarten should be bussed to school. "It's all part of what defines us as a community. Having your local elementary school is very important to the small towns."
While Malloy said he is open to making some changes to the bill, he maintains that local officials need to look at ways to reduce their education costs. He said even if the state's economy begins to pick up, municipalities shouldn't count on a big influx of tax revenue.
"These budgets are going to be under pressure for years to come and why not have the discussion (of regionalizing small school districts) when somebody's paying you to have it," he said. "All we're trying to do is trigger a conversation."