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Consolidate Connecticut? The Debate Over School Regionalization

This June, students at Island Avenue Elementary School in Madison, Connecticut, will leave for summer vacation, but they will not return in the fall. The school no longer has enough students to fill its classrooms.

The school’s closure, which has been planned for years, is scheduled to take place this summer. The children enrolled in Island Avenue will be transferred to one of the district’s two other elementary schools.

“Since 2010, we’ve had a decline [in] enrollment,” Madison Superintendent Thomas Scarice explained. In a span of ten years, the number of students in Madison has decreased by nearly 1,000. “We made a commitment that once it got to [the middle and high school] level, we would look to contract from six schools to five.”

Island Avenue is not the only school struggling with shrinking student populations. Districts across Connecticut are seeing fewer students enroll every year, pressuring lawmakers in Hartford to find a solution. One popular proposal is regionalization—also known as consolidation—where multiple schools merge into one, or districts share administrative functions such as janitorial services and IT departments.

“People are concerned about [the] declining population because you want your towns to prosper and to grow. We’re concerned,” Natalia Smirnova, a Salisbury Board of Education member, said.

She blames Salisbury’s shrinking school population on high property taxes. “Our town is prominent because it has a lot of second homes of New Yorkers, so the property tax is high, which precludes young families who want to move into the district,” she added.

But Scarice suspects the widespread declining enrollment also has something to do with birth rates. “Birth rates are definitely down nationwide,” she said, “especially in Connecticut.”

In 2016, the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics released data showing Connecticut has one of the lowest fertility rates in the nation, with only 53.4 births per 1,000 women—significantly lower than the national average of 62 per 1,000 women.

“It’s tough. Small towns become attached to their small neighborhood schools,” Scarice said.

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Two Connecticut bills have made school regionalization the subject of recent controversy.

Senate Bill 454, introduced by Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney this legislative session, would force school districts in towns with fewer than 40,000 residents to consolidate with a nearby district. In an interview with The Connecticut Mirror, Senator Looney stated that his proposal aims to improve “educational efficiency.”

The other proposal, Senate Bill 457, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) and Senator Cathy Osten (D-19), would require school districts with fewer than 2,000 students to join with a nearby regional school district. Duff identified school regionalization as “a way in which we can save the state precious resources and also work to increase student outcomes.”

Duff believes that by consolidating administrations, school regionalization would eliminate resources spent on overhead costs. Cutting costs is particularly important in Connecticut, which will face a 1.5-billion dollar budget deficit in fiscal year 2020.

But Duff stressed that his proposal is not radical: “Nobody is saying that schools have to close,” he said. “You would just have fewer administrators because the money that the state sends goes into administration rather than the classroom.”

State Representative Susan Johnson (D-49) echoed Duff’s concerns about the state’s education funding. She said suburban schools are losing students, despite receiving the same funding as more populous areas. “We need to make sure that we’re not building more schools in areas where we’re losing population,” she explained.

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“Any time you lead decision-making of public school children with a financial goal in mind, you could warp what you’re trying to do: educate kids optimally,” Scarice said.

Few dispute that the budget is at the center of these proposals. But lawmakers and school officials question whether regionalization is the best solution for the state’s financial challenges.

Because so much education funding comes from local sources, the state may not actually save much money by implementing mandatory regionalization.

“In a district like Madison—an affluent suburban community—our state funding is fairly minimal,” Scarice said. He explained that most funding for schools comes from local property tax dollars and estimated that only three to five percent of schools’ budgets comes from the state.  

Substantial local funding means that local taxpayers have a “big stake” in education funding because so much of the money is theirs, Betsy Gara, the executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, explained. Gara, along with many lawmakers, worries that regionalization proposals would result in a loss of local control. Inevitably, locals will have less of a say in their school system as it expands to encompass more towns, each with their own set of interests.

Kevin Smith, superintendent of Wilton, Connecticut, called mandated regionalization “repugnant.”

“The problem that I have is the assumption that regionalization automatically confers efficiency,” he said. “Ultimately, what I see is a loss of local control. So if a smaller town like Wilton was forced to regionalize with a larger town, then I’d have questions about…the governance structure there.”

He wondered aloud what would happen in the case of a referendum on funding in a regional school district. Would Wilton be beholden to the will of voters in the larger town?

Representative Vincent Candelora (R-86) also raised concerns about what the bills would mean for local budgetary control. “When we had our education funding cut by Governor Malloy mid-year, districts that were regionalized had no way of dealing with that,” he said.

While the local elected officials of North Branford, a town that had not regionalized its schools, were able to approach the Board of Education about balancing their budget, regionalized districts were unable to do so, Candelora explained. “Towns had no way to make up for those cuts,” he said.

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Salisbury, which has already implemented school regionalization, is facing the consequences of this policy change. Salisbury is part of Region One, which consists of eight towns that all send students to one regional high school. The towns give money to the region proportionate to the number of their students who attend the school.

The problem, Smirnova explained, is that anytime there are programmatic changes (the hiring of a new administrator, for example), her town must pay more money to the region. “Our board got really upset because we don’t have anything to do with who they’re hiring there, but we are spending more and more money because we’re supposed to support the programmatic changes they’re doing,” she said.

Smirnova also cited governance challenges created by regionalization: “The superintendent cannot govern well because she has to have the approval of eight boards. She spends all her time going to boards and presenting.”

In addition to a loss of local control, Smirnova explained that her district saw a loss of jobs. Although teachers can typically transfer to work at the consolidated school, nurses, custodians, and principals—who have positions that are harder to come by—do not have that luxury. “There were five principals, now there is one,” Smirnova said.

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“They’re going to get a lot of grassroots resistance,” Candelora said of the two bills.

Though it is likely that the bills will not pass in their current form, lawmakers see opportunities for compromise. Many critics of mandatory regionalization would still support letting districts voluntarily adopt regionalization, as towns such as Salisbury have done.

“We certainly support efforts to promote voluntary approaches to regionalization,” Gara said. “The issue we have with the bill is that it’s a top-down, forced consolidation approach without regard for what the impact will be on municipal costs. We’re very concerned about any effort to force consolidation in a way that is a one size fits all approach.”

Senator Duff, however, is skeptical that voluntary regionalization is a viable solution. “The voluntary approach doesn’t seem to be working so well,” he said. “It hasn’t happened.”

Because the proposals are still in their early stages, ample time remains for rethinking and revising. Regardless of the fate of his bill, however, Duff is certain that change is coming.

“The need is great and this should have happened a long time ago,” he said. “I’ll look at it optimistically and say that this is the beginning of a conversation, and one way or the other this is going to happen, whether it’s through legislation or other means in the state of Connecticut.”