On Friday, March 1st the Education Committee will hold a public hearing on three bills concerning school district consolidation and shared services for our public schools: Governor’s Bill 874, Proposed Senate Bill 738, and Proposed Senate Bill 457. There is no doubt that the hearing will be packed with strong voices on all sides of the conversation. Given the direction of Connecticut’s economy and declining public school enrollment, this is a vitally important conversation for our state. That’s why, this week, we’re taking a quick look at the strengths and weaknesses of the three bills.
The Governor’s Proposal
The early sections of the Governor’s Bill contemplate a proposal to foster shared services and school district consolidation. Last week Governor Lamont announced the inclusion of $500,000 for technical assistance to expand shared school services in his budget. The administration’s proposal contains 4 parts: (1) the establishment of the Commission on Shared School Services with 15 cascading reports over the next two years; (2) a requirement that small districts share superintendents by July 1, 2020; (3) a loosening of public meeting rules and frequency for districts that share superintendents; and (4) a 25% reimbursement bonus for school construction that is done collaboratively among districts.
The bulk of the proposal is the creation of the Commission on Shared School Services. It proposes an ambitious schedule of 16 separate reports/recommendations over approximately an 18 month period laying the groundwork and fostering momentum for shared school services. In addition, municipalities and school districts have reporting deadlines that are also layered in over the same time period. The packed calendar of deliverables is impressive, indicating an intention not to create “just another Commission.” Also commendable is the inclusive and collaborative reporting structure, which seems almost like a syllabus designed to generate buy-in from all stakeholders as the state moves districts toward cooperation over a two year period.
The Commission’s membership includes the alphabet soup of education stakeholders: superintendents, school business officers, both teacher unions, a representative of a board of education, a municipal CEO, a representative of a Regional Education Service Center, and a parent. Importantly, the Commission is designed to take a long-view with a termination date of 2027, recognizing that this work will build over time, in spite of its deliverables coming quickly over 2019 and 2020. The required reports include establishing a baseline status on existing districts and enrollment followed by reports on existing shared services; preliminary recommendations on how many school districts should exist and recommended governance structures; a review of RESC services, labor contracts, school transportation, scholastic athletics, after school scheduling, school choice and the opportunity for unified enrollment, the impact of consolidation on special education and early childhood education services, and school building use; financial projections on savings and incentives for cooperation; and, finally, a comprehensive report due in December of 2020.
While the Commission deliberately creates an inclusive dialogue with myriad stakeholders (think: CASBO, CIAC, the CT After School Network, etc.), the Governor’s proposal simultaneously pushes small districts to make changes on their own as quickly as possible.
It also withholds funds in certain instances, a tactic that stands more aligned with the prescriptive legislation proposed in two separate bills that will also be heard on Friday.
Recapping the Two Proposed Senate Bills
Also up for discussion at the hearing are two proposed bills, one from Senator Looney, the other from Senator Duff and Senator Osten.
As a reminder, Senator Looney's bill would develop a commission to plan for requiring towns with populations under 40,000 people join regional school districts.
The bill from Senators Duff and Osten would require small districts to form regional districts if they have fewer than 2,000 students enrolled.
All three bills contain ideas that are both intriguing and intimidating because they ask us to reimagine the administrative functions that keep our school districts running. But, for the health of our communities, economy, and students’ futures, we need to engage in this robust dialogue. Conversations like these will surface a variety of initiatives to foster cooperation across school districts so that we can keep student needs in the foreground and administrative matters in the background. We look forward to Friday’s hearing, where we hope there will be an honest, open, and action-oriented conversation.