Hebron Dollars & Sense
- Created on Friday, 24 February 2012 13:13
Bolton, Andover could face school penalty
By Ed Jacovino
Published: Thursday, February 23, 2012 12:28 PM EST
HARTFORD — Small towns would face penalties if they don’t form regional schools or cut education spending to less than the state average, under legislation Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed. The penalties would hit towns that spend more than the state average per student but have fewer than 1,000 students. They start at $100 in state aid per student, and would kick in for the 2015-16 school year.
The penalty would increase by $100 per student every year after that.
Bolton would be affected if education costs there increase even slightly. The same could be true for Andover, based on the size of its school system. Malloy, a Democrat, on Wednesday defended the proposal, saying the state has many small school systems in which student populations are shrinking while costs are going up. He made the comments after addressing hundreds of town officials at the annual meeting of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns.
“We need to start planning for the future,” Malloy said, by deciding whether it makes sense for tiny school systems to each employ human resource and facility directors, superintendents, assistant superintendents, and the like.
He points to the town of Canaan, which has one of the smallest school systems in the state, with 139 students. It’s the most expensive per student, though, at nearly $22,500. The statewide average is about $14,000.
The question is whether taxpayers can continue to afford such small school systems, and whether the state can afford to subsidize them, he said.
“What we’re trying to do is really ignite the conversation that needs to take place,” he said. “It’s hard to justify 160 school districts with that kind of repetition.”
Legislative Republicans oppose the proposal, saying it unfairly penalizes successful schools and that many of the towns affected are those with small tax bases. They also question whether the four-year advance notice is long enough.
“I think his focus is wrong,” said Rep. Pamela Z. Sawyer, R-Bolton. “His focus should not be on the smallest of towns that have school success. It should be on cities where the gap is so huge.” Sawyer also represents Andover.
She said the four-year notice before penalties kick in doesn’t offer much time. School boards already are debating their budgets for the 2012-13 school year, and teachers negotiate three-year contracts. “This is going to color those budget discussions if it were to go forward,” she said.
Towns should be encouraged to make regional partnerships, not forced to do so, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said.
“Forced regionalization doesn’t lead to better educational outcomes — it doesn’t lead to savings,” he said. “There’s a difference between the state forcing regionalization through financial penalties and the state working with towns and school districts through incentives and other measures that aren’t penalties.”
He also questioned whether towns would cut school spending to avoid the penalties, but noted that such a move would be difficult because state law limits year-to-year decreases in education spending.Sen. Stephen T. Cassano, D-Manchester, didn’t return repeated requests for comment Wednesday.
Cassano, who has pushed for regionalization, represents a district that includes Bolton. His district will include Andover as well after redistricting changes take effect with the November election. Bolton and Andover both could be penalized by the time the penalties would kick in. Bolton has 828 students and spent about $14,136 per student this year, according to state figures. To be affected by the law, per-student spending would have to be 10 percent more than the statewide average. This year, that’s $14,310.
Bolton, for this year, would be in the clear by a narrow $174 per student. Sawyer said the town is “on the cusp.” The difference is so close that Superintendent Paul Smith recently got an email saying he’d be affected. He said the school board plans to take up the issue at its next meeting. Smith said the schools already have regional relationships. Bolton High School accepts about 70 students from Columbia.
“In many senses, when it makes a lot of sense to regionalize, we’re doing that already,” he said. Andover also could be affected by the proposal. The town now has 637 students. It spends $12,282 per student, though, significantly less than the statewide average. Andover has its own elementary school, but students attend Regional School District 8 starting in Grade 7. The regional district, called RHAM, serves students from Hebron, Andover, and Marlborough.