Scrutinizes regional schools' dilemma
To the Editor:
Connecticut's current statutes for governance of regionalized school districts are structurally flawed and urgently need comprehensive legislative review and updating.
A regional school district in the state is a legal partnership of towns for public education of its pre-K-12 children. Conceptually, small towns should be able to provide better education, more cost effectively, by working together rather than separately.
However, most statutes that currently govern regional districts were enacted in the first half of the 20th century (Region 1 was formed in 1939; Region 12 in the late 1960s).
Regional districts have become expensive to operate and difficult to manage as a result of a mix of statutory constraints, unfunded state mandates, shifting of state financial support to needy urban districts, and declining student populations.
Here are some major structural flaws: first, regional district boards have authority to submit budget and capital project referenda to voters directly, with no input from, nor prior approval of, town boards of finance, but without taxing authority to fund approved budgets and projects.
This awkwardly places voters in the position of having to allocate resources to competing needs of schools and towns.
Elected town officials, not voters, should make those tradeoffs, subject to approval of town legislative bodies. Boards of regional districts should have the same accountability to town boards of finance as do boards of non-regionalized school districts.
Further with respect to budgeting, the state mandates school budgets cannot be materially reduced, even if enrollment declines.
Second, in 2009, the state Supreme Court ordered any substantive change in the original regionalization agreement requires approval of the legislative body of each town in the region.
Each town thus has a veto over changes to improve costs and/or education, even if approved by a majority in the region.
No such constraint was placed on the state concerning its regulations, mandates and commitments of funding support to regional districts and towns.
So, state unfunded mandates have continued (e.g., to accept and mainstream special education students and to absorb most of those costs into local budgets).
New ones evolve (e.g., the current work to convert to the requirements of the federally sponsored "Common Core").
Meanwhile, state sharing of region costs (e.g., transportation, capital facilities and education cost sharing) has been severely reduced from levels provided when the region was first formed.
Adding to these pressures on costs, regional districts are required by the state to accept "closed shop" union representation of most employees and compulsory binding arbitration.
The combined impact of this network of constraints and mandates, spread over declining student populations, has been devastating.
Region 12 has a budget for 2014-15 of $21,416,516 for 747 students, down from 1,058 in 2007-8. That's $28,670 per student.
Professional forecasters project Region 12 student population will continue to decline to 528 by 2022. Even with no increase in costs until then, the cost per student would grow to $40,561.
Boards of region districts thus boxed in face poor choices, such as deferral of facilities maintenance, reduction of education programs and curricula, and taking on more debt. Such measures have little chance to win unanimous approvals of regions' towns.
Finally, a business partnership faced with such a daunting array of issues and obstacles might say: "Let's give it up -- let's dissolve the partnership and allow each partner to re-think its circumstances and seek alternative strategies in its own best interests."
Not so fast: state statutes Sec. 10-61 to 10-63 covering withdrawal or dissolution of a regional district were repealed in 1963.
The only way currently for a town to withdraw, or for a region to dissolve itself, is statute Sec. 10-63(a-f). This requires at least two towns in a region of three to petition their regional Board of Education or a study, which the BOE shall organize under the provisions of this statute.
This, too, is a flawed concept. The legislative bodies of member towns (not the BOE) created the region and should have the lead responsibility for developing new strategic plans that might involve de-regionalization, withdrawal or reconfiguration of towns.
Conclusion: Without thoughtful reform by the state of its statutes and regulations governing regional school districts, regionalization will not be a successful strategy for primary and secondary public education in the state's small towns.
The losers will be students, their parents and educators, taxpayers and, ultimately, the towns and the state.
John H. Field