Rell offers schools a paperwork waiver instead of cash

If you can’t give them more money, give them less paperwork

That seems to be the rationale behind a provision in Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s deficit reduction plan that would allow school boards to petition for waivers of state mandates, including paperwork requirements.

But while local school officials have long complained of being overwhelmed by state demands for reports, forms, budgets and other data, it’s not clear just how much relief the proposed mandate waivers will afford.

Rell’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year holds the line on the major source of state funding for local schools, the $1.9 billion Education Equalization Grants, and her plan to reduce this year’s deficit would cut millions in subsidies for programs from bus transportation to healthy cafeteria food.

The deficit plan also includes, however, a proposal that would allow school boards to petition the state for waivers “of certain educational mandates . . . . including modifications that would reduce the paperwork burden.”

The proposal does not identify specific types of mandates, but Jeffrey Beckham, a spokesman for the governor’s budget office, said it is designed chiefly to make the collection of data and other reports more efficient.

“Towns have to spend money preparing and submitting these reports,” he said. “Can we consolidate, perhaps eliminate some of them? I gather there are dozens of these kinds of things.”

Five dozen, to be exact, according to the State Department of Education’s annual data collection report. It includes reports on matters such as teacher certification, student disciplinary offenses, teacher hiring surveys, school construction, magnet school busing and substitute teachers.

Every school district, for example, files an end-of-year report that includes 12 pages of detailed forms and requires an estimated 25 hours to complete, according to the Department of Education.

“Superintendents and principals, in particular, have to spend so much time filling out forms . . . that they don’t have the time they need to fulfill their other responsibilities,” said Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

The complaint is common.

“In smaller districts, it’s even worse,” said Mark Winzler, who was superintendent of the 900-student Bolton public school system before being named interim superintendent in Berlin’s public schools last fall. With fewer administrators in small districts, he said, “You have to become an expert in a lot of different things, and it becomes very cumbersome.”

However, Winzler and other school officials said it is unclear exactly what types of paperwork can be streamlined or eliminated.

“There are lots and lots and lots of data requirements,” said Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the State Department of Education. “We’ve tried to streamline these things, but it’s pretty much what we need to have to report to the public, from dropout data to attendance. . . . It does take time, but much of this has to do with accountability.”

Much of what is reported is required by federal law, such as the lengthy reports associated with special education. “To eliminate that,” Murphy said, “would take an act of Congress.”

Under Rell’s proposal, school boards or local governments could petition the State Board of Education for waivers of mandates that require substantial paperwork. The board would review requests based on the potential educational impact of the waiver and each district’s ability to pay.

Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said the cost of extra paperwork has much less financial impact than expenses related to running special education programs or school busing operations, for example.

Filing a request to reduce paperwork “is not going to be a magic elixir,” he said.

Besides, he added, “You have to do some paperwork to get relief from paperwork.”