School Reform in Connecticut
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In fact, this structure could lead to the elimination of costly magnet schools, because every high school would in essence become a magnet school.
Each of the six districts will be governed by an elected regional school board, which will employ one superintendent whose office also might contain a legal office and hearings office, maintain government relations and oversee student activities and athletics.
Each cluster will need an assistant superintendent who reports to the district superintendent and is responsible for the schools within the cluster, including hiring and firing principals. Administrative functions—curriculum, transportation, finance, human resources, special education and food service—would operate district-wide outside the superintendent’s office and separate from the clusters, with each department supervised by an assistant superintendent.
To fund our new districts, we’ll need to remove budget responsibilities from municipalities and transfer them to the regional governing boards, each of which would then apportion the money among the schools within the district, giving boards the flexibility to concentrate resources where the needs are. Granted, that would require a tectonic shift in the state’s long-held reverence for local control. “You’re dealing with a lot of culture and tradition,” says Cirasuolo.
While this funding proposal does not obviate our state’s heavy reliance on property taxes to fund education, it will result in fewer disparities among districts by smoothing out the huge gaps in per-pupil spending that result from inequities in property values among municipalities. Statewide, annual per-pupil spending averages about $14,000. However, 111 districts spend less than that, with Ansonia, Hebron, Watertown and Wolcott below $11,000 per pupil. At the other end of the scale, Sharon and Canaan spend over $22,000.
Viewed another way, total public-school spending as a percentage of a municipality’s grand list ranges from 0.36 percent in wealthy Greenwich to 4.78 percent in Hartford, one of the poorest cities in the nation.
Creating larger school districts through consolidation also addresses one of the most daunting problems the governor and legislature tried to address through the reform bill last spring: the achievement gap, most vividly seen in standardized test-score disparities between urban and suburban schools. Under “No Child Left Behind,” children in failing schools are allowed to transfer to another school, but only if it’s in the same district. Expand the boundaries of the districts, and the choices and educational opportunities become much greater.
Nearly as important as providing increased opportunities are the cost savings that could be realized through statewide consolidation—putting more money into the classroom, where it is needed most. The regional service centers as currently configured have been working on the margins helping some districts take baby steps to band together to save money.
Paula Colen, executive director of EASTCONN, the regional center serving 36 northeast Connecticut districts, says five districts and their corresponding municipalities recently formed a collaborative that they expect will bring significant health-care savings.
“When we do things regionally, we can not only create savings, in many cases we can also increase quality and reduce duplication of effort,” Colen says. “So instead of paying fees to our health-care provider, that funding—all of it or some part of it—can be driven back into student education and learning.”
Take school-year calendars, for instance. Because every district is responsible for getting its children to local schools as well as magnet schools, vo-tech schools, charter schools and academies, when district schools are closed on days that others are open, the district still has to spend thousands to keep the buses running. A few districts are finding that sharing holidays and vacations can have a ripple effect on budgets. Expand that to larger, regional districts and the potential is there for saving millions.
“There are lots of opportunities for school districts to cooperate on programs, but the calendars get in the way,” says Virginia Seccombe, executive director at LEARN, the 24-district regional center along the eastern shoreline. “At one meeting a superintendent said, ‘You know, the differences in calendars cost me the equivalent of a teacher’s salary.’”