Remember the Democrats’ plans to force the consolidation of school districts statewide? The plans were met with a firestorm of opposition in February.
Governor Lamont claims he’s heard the hue and cry, and has revised his consolidation proposal (Bill No. 874) to make it voluntary, proposing to use financial incentives, instead of force, to encourage towns to consolidate schools.
At first blush, “incentives” sound better than “force,” but it remains to be seen whether Lamont intends to offer genuine choice or to extend towns “an offer they cannot refuse.” Moreover, Lamont has barely revised his proposed legislation, except for the substitution of the word “recommendations” for “plan” and the words “shared services” and “collaboration” for “redistricting,” “regionalization” and “consolidation.” These word swaps can be reversed very easily.
The idea that Lamont & Co. has heard the citizenry is belied by another alarming bill that Democrats are moving along. Public hearings were held on March 14 for a bill that looks like the second step in the Democrats’ forced consolidation scheme. Bill No. 7319 transfers taxing authority from cities and towns to school boards.
Naturally, once a large new school district swallows various small towns and their school districts, two broad questions arise: (1) which towns pay how much for what and (2) who decides.
When consolidation evolves voluntarily, these questions are answered along the way, or consolidation does not take place.
Take Easton and Redding, small towns that have consolidated voluntarily at the high school level (but not at middle or elementary school level). Each town contributes the same per-pupil amount for their respective high school students. Governance is straightforward: each town has four members on the Joel Barlow High School board. This successful voluntary consolidation is not surprising, since the towns have almost equal student and general populations, and they are similar in most other respects.
It is not so simple when dissimilar towns consolidate – especially when all levels of schools from pre-K to 12 are to be consolidated, which is the Democrats’ objective.
Take neighbors New London and Waterford (municipalities which were once one entity). New London is a poor city with a drastically lower ability to pay for schools, yet its students would far outnumber Waterford students in a combined district. A uniform per-pupil rate across the consolidated district would be an unbearably heavy burden upon New London taxpayers, but any other arrangement would force Waterford’s wealthier citizens to subsidize the poorer citizens and students of New London – or overall education quality would surely decline precipitously.
Furthermore, Waterford taxpayers foot almost the entire town education budget, while New London relies upon federal and state grants and the state’s education cost sharing (ECS) program to fund two-thirds of its schools budget.
Any consolidation plan would need to have a process or formula for setting the rate at which taxpayers in a consolidated district would contribute to the combined education budget. Lamont’s proposal offers no guidance.
Nor does Lamont indicate whether the state would continue to provide aid to such a combined district, especially state money that is funding voluntary and evolutionary partial regionalization in the form of New London’s magnet schools. The Day reports that these schools are attracting students from 40 other communities.
Actually, Lamont is doing the opposite this year, namely, trying to cut overall ECS funding and to offload much of the funding obligation for teacher pensions onto local governments and taxpayers.
There are no easy answers, and Lamont and his comrades haven’t offered any. However, it sure looks like Lamont would like Waterford taxpayers to pay more in the future in a new combined regional district, which, of course, would allow the state to send less aid.
Apparently, Lamont & Co. want the new regional school boards to make all of these tough decisions. After all, the Democrats want to give these boards authority to levy all taxes that would fund education – and to issue all bonds for that purpose – so they must intend that the school boards would make the difficult choices about how the tax burden would be borne by the citizenry.
But Lamont and his party have given no indication of the kind of school boards that would oversee new consolidated districts, nor how the new boards would come into existence nor what their make-up would be. Instead, school board governance is the only issue that Lamont removed from the wide-ranging mandate placed on the Commission on Shared School Services, established in his revised schools legislation, Bill No. 874.
Specifically, he removed Section 2 (b)(5): “The commission shall develop a report containing a review and preliminary recommendations concerning the governance structure of school districts.”
Colonial Americans fought the Revolution over “taxation without representation.” Lamont & Co. are proposing taxation without any clear and predefined form of representation − taxation, moreover, to fund a massive statewide realignment of public education to which the state’s citizens have demonstrated overwhelming opposition. What should present-day Connecticut citizens do? The question answers itself: say no, hell no.
Red Jahncke (Twitter: @RedJahncke) is president of The Townsend Group Intl, LLC, a Connecticut business consulting firm.
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Red Jahncke is a nationally recognized columnist, who writes about politics and policy. His columns appear in numerous national publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today, The Hill, Issues & Insights and National Review as well as many Connecticut newspapers.