Regionalizing schools: a carrot or a stick?

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has grown impatient waiting for small school districts to team up with nearby districts to shave costs.

He wants the state to significantly scale back the amount it sends towns such as Canaan, which spends $22,450 for each of the 139 students it educates each year, the most expensive per-student spending in the state.

“It’s a way to not target your investments appropriately,” Malloy said of the 18 small schools districts his administration has identified as spending too much.

But what Malloy may call excessive costs, the leader of Canaan, which is located in the state’s northwest corner, calls providing a quality education.

“Our town should be commended for spending this much, for spending what is needed to provide an adequate education,” said First Selectwoman Patricia Ally Mechare. “We’re being responsible by spending what it takes, while the state hasn’t.”

The state sends $78.8 million each year to the 49 towns with fewer than 1,000 students.

But the Malloy administration reports that $12.5 million of that is being sent to towns that are spending way above the amount the state deems acceptable, or $15,400 per student.

“Why should the people of Connecticut be asked to subsidize that?” Malloy said on WNPR’s Where We Live Thursday morning. “Let me assure you there are plenty of people in those towns that are complaining about property taxes. There’s a lot of pressure in every one of those towns to cut the school budget, you know it and I know it.”

Malloy is asking the legislature to pass a bill that would cut the amount of funding the state sends to a district by thousands of dollars starting in four school years. Before that 2015 deadline to shave their costs, Malloy wants the state to offer $300,000 for small towns to experiment with regionalizing services.

James Finley, head of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said his members have some concerns. “We would like to see [the bill] modified so it’s more a carrot than a stick approach.”

This change is already receiving pushback from Republican leadership, who outlined their opposition to such a change in their legislative package.

“It is not an incentive to regionalize. It’s a penalty if they don’t… I would ask the committee to be cautious about that,” House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk told the Education Committee Wednesday.

Leaders from Eastford, which is on the cusp of spending too much to educate its 233 students, worry that the $1.1 million in state funds the town receives each year will be cut.

“Citizens agree that it is the small school, small class size, attention from teachers and administrators, and regular interaction with parents that has made Eastford students successful… Bigger is not always better,” the selectmen from the town wrote members of the Education Committee this week.

State legislators have been talking about regionalizing school districts for years. The most recent attempt was in 2010, when lawmakers passed a law that would allow towns to keep half the savings they netted from regionalizing transportation. Few districts took the state up on that offer.

“It would actually cost us more. We found out very quickly it wasn’t cost-effective,” said Mechare.

“There are a lot of reasons we don’t want to get rid of our elementary school,” she said, “the No. 1 reason being we know we are providing a great education and we aren’t convinced we will get the education we desire for our youngsters if we regionalize.”