Danbury-area school districts speak out against regionalization

February 22, 2019 GMT

When a school regionalization bill was first introduced in the Legislature earlier this year, many Danbury-area school officials suspected it wouldn’t gain traction.

Now that the proposal is headed to a public hearing, school board members and concerned residents are speaking out.

In a rare move, the Redding Board of Education, which is already part of a regional school district, has sent a letter to the state opposing Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney’s regionalization bill, which would impact towns with fewer than 40,000 residents.

The bill, SB 738, was introduced by as a way to find efficiencies and save money, but has raised concerns about reduced local control and logistical questions regarding transportation, salaries, and how costs will be split.

Some school districts also question what this will mean for investments districts have already made into their schools’ facilities and programs.

“We don’t think it does anyone any favors,” said Redding board member Christopher Parkin.

Forced partnerships

Only about 25, or roughly 15 percent, of the state’s 169 municipalities, have more than 40,000 residents.

There are two other broader regionalization proposals, including a bill that would impact towns with fewer than 2,000 students. Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget proposal also includes a plan that could reduce school money to small districts that didn’t regionalize certain services, like sharing a superintendent.

“I’m pleased we have a debate going on now with ways to save money, especially because many small districts have lost enrollment,” Looney said.

He said a small district that opts out of regionalizing would forgo state grants.

Redding is no stranger to regionalization. It already shares a central office and high school with Easton as Region 9.

The Easton, Redding and Region 9 boards have discussed the possibility of becoming one, but have faced several hurdles including separate contracts and pay scales for staff and 13 different bargaining units. Existing debt for the buildings and blending the curriculum and programs that currently represent the individual communities are also challenges.

Parkin said the bill doesn’t do anything to address existing problems of regional districts and said a better approach would be to start there.

Heather Whaley, a Redding school board member, said this bill just amplifies these problems because Redding wouldn’t expand on its existing relationship with Easton but would instead have to form a district with Bethel, Ridgefield and Newtown.

“I can’t even imagine how it would play out,” she said. “It would be creating a huge mess.”

Concerns grow

The Ridgefield school board has also sent a letter to the state opposing school regionalization. The letter argues these proposals will reduce or threaten local accountability and reduce the efficacy of local school organizations.

Bethel Superintendent of Schools Christine Carver said some parents and taxpayers have reached out to her opposing the bill. While the school board hasn’t taken a formal position, Carver said she also doesn’t like the bill as written.

Each district has invested in different programs and so officials question if this would require schools to get rid of existing initiatives or pay to add others so that there is equity across the board.

“It’s four very different towns with different priorities,” Parkin said.

Carver said she understands wanting to find ways to save money, but doesn’t think the data shows this plan will do that. Instead, it poses a greater risk of hurting student achievement because it would make the district large, she said.

Bethel’s regional district would have about 13,700 students, based on the most recent enrollment numbers reported by the state Department of Education.

As they now stand, Danbury has about 11,500 students, Stamford has about 16,000 and Bridgeport, New Haven, Waterbury and Hartford all have between 19,000 and 21,500 students, according to the state. All of these cities have more than 40,000 people and would be exempt.

Looney said programs would have to be negotiated and new bargaining units created once existing contracts expire. He said the towns would probably contribute to the district proportionally based on the number of students.

Cost savings

A main goal of the proposal is to save money with the idea that not as many top administrators with six-figure salaries, including superintendents, will be needed.

But school boards doubt removing a superintendent would generate the savings politicians expect.

“If you get rid of the person at the top, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to have more in the middle,” Whaley said.

Looney said the savings would be administrative and he doesn’t propose closing any buildings.

Instead, it could mean students attending schools that are geographically closer, such as a West Redding student going to Branchville Elementary School in Ridgefield. It’s unclear how towns would pay for the building maintenance in those cases and who would be responsible for the students getting there.

There is also a question about the impact on existing regional schools, like Joel Barlow High School, which now serves students from both Easton and Redding.