Budget pressure pushes schools to regional cooperation

NORWICH – When this cash-strapped town closed its schools for spring vacation last April, it still had to pay to keep school buses rolling.

The school district continued operating buses for students attending programs outside the district, including a New London magnet school and state-run technical and agricultural high schools.

Norwich school bus

Norwich school bus: Transportation is one area that could be regionalized (Robert A. Frahm)

The cost of running the buses that week, about $20,000, could have been saved if all of the schools had been on the same vacation schedule, officials said.

This week, the Norwich Board of Education is expected to vote to join other districts in adopting a common school calendar to avoid such conflicts, hoping eventually to coordinate schedules with more than two dozen school systems in the region.

Pressured by Connecticut’s mounting fiscal crisis, school districts are warming to the idea of working together to hold down costs – a sharp break from the longstanding Yankee tradition of local control and immutable district boundary lines.

“We need to let go of these border lines and boundaries that inhibit and make education costs so expensive,” said Charles Jaskiewicz, Norwich’s school board chairman. “We really need to work on regionalizing better.”

A uniform school calendar could be one of the first steps. Educators also are discussing regional approaches to health insurance, purchasing agreements, busing and even curriculum, especially as schools across the state brace for more layoffs and budget cuts next year.

“I think [regionalism] is being pursued more seriously now than I’ve ever seen it,” said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

In other parts of the nation, too, school districts increasingly are looking for ways to share costs and work together under the pressure of tight budgets, especially in states with numerous small districts confined to small geographic areas, said Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

“That is going on almost everywhere,” he said. “It’s money. It’s efficiency. It’s also access to resources.”

The budget crisis is particularly urgent in places such as Norwich, where the school district laid off more than 10 percent of its workforce this year, closed two schools and saw class sizes balloon.

Jaskiewicz, the board chairman, sees potential savings in areas such as busing, where he believes neighboring towns could jointly operate buses to take students to state-operated technical high schools, for example. Under the current system, he said, “A lot of times you’ll see a bus going down the highway with only a handful of students on it, and other towns will follow the same route.”

Officials from Norwich and other nearby districts also are exploring the possibility of cooperative arrangements for insurance coverage,” Jaskiewicz said.

The push for regional cooperation gained momentum last January when Democrats in the state House of Representatives created the Commission on Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies (MORE) to examine potential collaborations among towns, school districts and regional organizations.

More recently, the issue was raised by an ad hoc committee of the State Board of Education. The committee, which is studying school finance, has asked the state’s regional education service centers to collect information on the feasibility of cooperative approaches to busing and insurance coverage.

There are six regional education service centers in Connecticut, assisting school districts in areas such as special education, technology, curriculum development, professional training and purchasing.

“This year, more than ever, we’re engaged in discussions to help [districts] put people together to reduce costs,” said Craig Edmondson, executive director of ACES, a regional center based in North Haven.

Some educators believe the legislature’s passage of a major school reform law earlier this year, including new graduation requirements, could lead to a more standardized statewide curriculum. “If that were to take place . . . it may help school districts to not spend significant resources to develop [their own] curriculums,” Edmonson said. A common curriculum also could allow for districts to make joint purchases of textbooks.

“We need to think differently than we have in the past,” Edmondson said.

The major factor behind the renewed interest in regional cooperation is the sputtering economy, including a looming $3.3 billion state budget deficit.

“All of this has come with the recession,” said Bruce Douglas, executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council, a regional agency covering Greater Hartford. “How can we create economies of scale so we can reallocate needed resources back to the classroom?”

In Connecticut, nearly all of the state’s 169 towns operate their own separate school districts and often cling fiercely to the notion of local autonomy – even in towns with only a few hundred students.

Nevertheless, said Douglas, “There are multiple ways [regionalism] can work – information technology services, technology repair, facilities management, food services, transportation. Probably the most important one is health benefits and regional contracts.”

Joint purchasing agreements already are relatively common as districts join municipal cooperatives or other school systems to buy paper, classroom materials, custodial supplies and other materials. “I’ve been doing that for years,” said Maria Whalen, the business and finance director for New London’s public schools.

In Plainville, public schools are involved in cooperative purchasing arrangements for things such as special education services, paper, copiers, oil and electricity, said Richard Carmelich, the school system’s director of finance and operations.

“Most districts do at least some things regionally,” he said. “We’re part of a number of consortiums.”

As educators squeeze what they can from their budgets, they are expecting little, if any, additional help this year from the state. Lawmakers will be hard-pressed just to maintain existing levels of state aid to schools.

“I think the smart districts are the ones being creative,” said State Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee. “The budget situation we’re in really dictates that.”

Gaffey is among advocates for regional cooperation, including a common statewide school calendar. So is state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan.

A common calendar “is very important and, arguably, a simple thing to do. . . . We’re not that big a state,” McQuillan said. “I can’t imagine you couldn’t have a post-Labor Day start and the same basic configuration of days off.”

Educators believe a uniform calendar not only would help neighboring towns to coordinate bus schedules, it would also allow them to share the cost of hiring speakers or running training programs for teachers on days scheduled for professional development.

“If you can get common vacation days and common professional development days – that would make a difference,” said Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

However, some districts set vacations and teacher training days in labor contracts while others have well-established traditions they may be reluctant to alter. “Everyone has their own idea as to what the perfect vacation schedule is,” McCarthy said. “You get lots of opinions. People are wedded to what they’ve been doing.”

Nevertheless, she said school boards are expressing a “significantly heightened interest” in working together on matters such as busing, special education, professional training and summer school.

“The time is right,” she said.