Connecticut’s public schools could be required as early as this year to keep most suspended students in alternative in-school programs rather than sending them home, a key legislative committee has decided.

A law limiting out-of-school suspensions was passed in 2007 but has been delayed because some educators and municipal officials have said it would be too costly.

“We’ve allowed a delay in in-school suspensions the past three years. There’s no need to delay it anymore,” state Sen. Thomas Gaffey said Wednesday after the legislature’s Education Committee failed to act on a bill that would have postponed the requirement another year.

Although a postponement still could be considered later by the General Assembly, the existing bill, in effect, is dead.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed it’s not going to be delayed. It could cost towns millions of dollars statewide,” said Kevin Maloney, a spokesman for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

The organization estimates the cost of hiring additional staff or creating additional space could range from $10,000 annually in a small town to as much as $4.5 million in a big city.

As the state’s slumping economy continues to batter local budgets, “this is not the time for a new unfunded mandate,” Maloney said.

The Connecticut Association of Boards of Education also opposes the law, said Robert Rader, the association’s executive director. “While certainly we want to keep students in school, there are good reasons for suspending students out of school,” he said. “Very often it gets parents involved. It says to the student that this is a serious problem that has to be faced.”

However, Gaffey, co-chairman of the Education Committee, said, “Our goal should be to keep students in school and keeping up with their schoolwork rather than having them out of school with idle time, getting in trouble.”

He said many in-school suspension programs already are under way and “are working extraordinarily well.” State figures show that more than half of the suspensions in public schools last year were handled in school. Gaffey contended in-school programs would not add excessive new costs. “The uproar over the fiscal impact of this is a myth,” he said.

At Cromwell High School, an in-school program, now in its second full year, is operated by a teacher’s aide and has reduced the number of out-of-school suspensions, said Principal Mark Benigni. “Suspending kids out puts them further and further behind and creates problems when they come back,” he said. “If someone is overly disruptive and we have to suspend them [out of school], we will, but it is always a last choice.”

At Stafford High School, officials have had an in-school suspension program for many years but have attempted to expand its use over the past three years, said Superintendent of Schools Therese Fishman. “We have reduced our out-of-school suspensions to about 7 percent,” down from about 20 percent, she said.

Nevertheless, the in-school program is run by teachers’ aides instead of certified teachers, requiring the school to hire certified substitute teachers for students who are suspended for more than a few days, she said.

The best solution would be to hire a full-time certified teacher to work with suspended students, she said.

The in-school program works, she said, “but there are consequences you have to look at, and it’s not cheap. It’s not cheap at all.”

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