Last week we broke the news about SB 454, a bill proposed by Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney (D-11/New Haven) that calls for the consolidation of school districts into regional systems aligned along probate districts. For Wilton, that would mean a “re-alignment” of the town’s school district with the Norwalk school district.
(NOTE: The bill was originally introduced with language specifying it applied to towns with less than 40,000 total student population; however, director of communications for the Senate Democrats Kevin Coughlin has clarified that the bill will apply to towns with less than 40,000 total population. That doesn’t change its implication for Wilton, however.)
The news has garnered a tremendous amount of attention and reaction–in Wilton, most of it has been negative. It’s being vociferously debated on Facebook. There have been petitions launched online–including one Change.org petition introduced by Wilton resident Steve Massaua that was well on its way to over 1,500 signatures by press time Sunday evening.
It’s also being reported on around Fairfield County and across the state. Our colleagues at CT News Junkie picked up the GMW story, and they offer a way to register your opinion via their Bills.CTNewsJunkie.com site, to provide Connecticut voters with a way to show support or opposition for legislation as written. It’s free to use and make your thoughts heard at the state legislature. You can also track the bill’s progress on their site, or directly on the general assembly page.
One reader delved a little deeper into the conversation, beyond the knee-jerk (albeit understandable) reaction of “Property Values will Plummet!” In a comment s/he posted on our original article on Friday, “WiltonMD” wrote:
State Senator Looney is just trying to score some political points for other issues, i.e. the 90-toll plan, etc. Will Haskell will certainly have a very, very short political career should this bill make it out of committee and into a full legislature vote. It is ironic, however, that voters will scream for lower taxes via regionalization, but not when it comes to merging with an ethnically diverse, “poorer” school district. It seems that even virtuous Lamont and Haskell voters are virtuous until it comes to school districting…tsk, tsk. These same issues will come up across the state with disparate neighboring districts, so it is not unique to Wilton/Norwalk.
An enormous roadblock to this will be the thousands of well-paid school administrators and unionized school teachers who will see potential salary, benefit, retirement plan, and healthcare coverage threats in all of this. A bill like this would mean 50% cuts in administration if schools were regionalized efficiently. Those administrators will fight tooth and nail in the name of “the children” to keep their jobs. No teacher will go along with this unless a merging district has even better benefits than their own. Even a straight party line Democratic legislature and governor must bend to the educator union’s weight given its votes.
To take an outside-the-box view, I am not so sure property values or education would be harmed by this. Wilton taxes might go down. If families leave, enrollment declines and both the school and tax outlook improves from lower enrollment. As well, Norwalk’s two high schools have the Norwalk Early College Academy (Norwalk HS NECA) and Center for Global Studies (Brien McMahon HS) while Wilton HS has neither. Oddly, college admissions and coveted acceptances at “name” universities would certainly improve as current Wilton HS students would suddenly find themselves in an “under-represented” urban, poor, multicultural school district. Most likely for Wilton students, school location would stay the same as with the current geographic Norwalk HS/Brien McMahon HS system in Norwalk.
Again, the odds of this happening appear to be zero, but it is very clever politically for Looney to throw this on the table. It will make the Republican towns and legislators look foolish because they will scream for more taxes to keep the districts separate.
It brings up several worthy questions, including what motivation could belie the proposal of regionalization–is it, as some pundits have suggested, meant to make any pushdown of the teacher pension costs seem less threatening and more acceptable? Is it an effort to curry favor with unions, given the emphasis on collective bargaining–and zero mention of academic outcomes, achievement or educational quality?
There’s empirical evidence from states where consolidation has already been adopted, and much of it showing that student outcomes either don’t improve or are negatively impacted.
Some studies have shown consolidation of school districts may put their student population at a disadvantage. From a 2012 article on the Council of State Governments site, “Research also has found numerous disadvantages to school system mergers. One study concludes student achievement is higher in small schools and higher still in small schools operating in small school districts.(12) Other studies have linked small schools with a lower dropout rate(13) and more graduates who enroll in postsecondary education.(14)”
As one GMW reader suggested, “Merging would likely raise the achievement gap for the new district higher than either district separately. On most scorecard metrics, the odds are that the new district would perform worse than wilton does solo. And on achievement gap metrics worse than either district does today.”
Another study referenced by the NCSL indicates that: “teachers at smaller schools have more positive attitudes; students at smaller schools have more opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities; and students at larger schools feel more isolated and less motivated.”
Other sources, including the National Conference for State Legislatures (NCSL) and the Center for American Progress, make the case that consolidation doesn’t magically fix-all, either budget or student achievement; in fact, while smaller districts may benefit from consolidation, it may hurt newly formed district over 3,500 students.
The NCSL article suggests: “Consolidation is most effective at cutting costs when the districts involved are small (300 pupils). As larger districts consolidate, the study found that the cost savings are reduced. And when districts reach 1,500 pupils or more, the study found that consolidating such districts has little impact on cost effectiveness (Duncombe & Yinger, 2001). Attempts to find an optimal district size has resulted in mixed results. In general, the University of Syracuse study provides evidence for optimal district sizes that range from 1,000-3,500 pupils.”
While some cost-saving benefits have been seen, evidence also shows that other savings may not be readily realized: There are increased transit costs, added administrative costs for regional staff (often at higher pay because of the larger scope of responsibilities) labor costs that often rise overall, as compensation often increase to meet the higher-paying district. Other savings often come from state aids and grants used as incentives–which aren’t really savings to the state itself.
The Center for American Progress warns against a “one-size-fits-all approaches to maximizing district size”: “In most cases, however, it should be districts and schools, not states, making the ultimate decisions around consolidation and district redesign efforts. In some states, wholesale consolidation might work. In many states, however, the evidence suggests that a more targeted approach is the wiser course.”
Opportunities for Information and Action
There are several upcoming opportunities to connect with Wilton’s local legislators and let them know your thoughts on the bill (and others, of course).
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 8-9 a.m.: Rep. Gail Lavielle and Rep. Tom O’Dea are hosting a Constituent Coffee at Orem’s Diner.
Thursday, Jan. 31, 7 p.m.: The Wilton Republican Town Committee is inviting the public to an information session on SB 454 at Comstock Community Center. All are welcome and families with students in Wilton schools are strongly encouraged to attend. According to a statement, “the purpose of the meeting is to facilitate responses to the bill by all Wilton residents and give each the opportunity to be heard in Hartford as the bill is debated.”
Thursday, Jan. 31, 7-8 p.m.: Community Conversation with Sen. Will Haskell, Sen. Bob Duff and Rep. Lucy Dathan, Norwalk Community College (188 Richards Ave, Norwalk)
Saturday, Feb. 9, 9:30-11 a.m.: Legislative Breakfast with Wilton’s Legislators–a Q & A with Will Haskell and Gail Lavielle at The Greens at Cannondale (435 Danbury Rd.). Hosted by the Wilton League of Women Voters and The Greens at Cannondale and Wilton Meadows.
To contact legislators directly:
Sen. Martin Looney
Sen. Bob Duff (Senate President)
Sen. Will Haskell (Wilton)
Rep. Gail Lavielle (Wilton)
Rep. Tom O’Dea (Wilton)
Rep. Robert Sanchez (Education Committee Chair)
Sen. Douglas McCrory (Education Committee Chair)
Rep. Kathleen McCarty (Education Committee Ranking Member)
Sen. Eric Berthel (Education Committee Ranking Member)
Rep. Jill Barry (Education Committee Vice Chair)
Sen. Mary Abrams (Education Committee Vice Chair)
Governor Ned Lamont
Lt. Governor Susan Bysiewicz