OP-ED | Small Towns to Sharkey: We’re Already Doing It
Brendan Sharkey is at it again. The speaker of the state House of Representatives and his Municipal Opportunities & Regional Efficiencies Commission (MORE) are parading around the Capitol, telling us how we can run our local governments more efficiently and insisting “We are facing a new normal in the state of Connecticut.”
Some of the speaker’s ideas are interesting and perhaps even practical. Regionalization, for example, can allow municipalities to achieve more favorable economies of scale, while giving them less autonomy and leading to the inevitable quip that MORE is less. However, lots of towns are already practicing regionalism.
And take his idea of allowing local school boards to present budgets and set mill rates independent of the municipalities they serve. There certainly is something to be said for insulating school districts from town politics. But the reality is that it’s very difficult to do.
I worked as a journalist in the state of New York for five years. By Connecticut standards, school districts there are almost bizarre. Indeed, with only a few exceptions, they’re separate to an extreme from the municipalities they serve. Regional school district boundaries in New York jog in an out of towns and, in some cases, in and out of counties.
With the exception of some of the big cities, New York school districts have separate taxing authority. Boards of education set their own mill rates and hold their own budget referenda. They send out their own tax bills and must take the case for education spending directly to taxpayers.
That means regional school districts in Connecticut, as in New York, would be, to a limited extent, insulated from town politics. Some of the commenters on Hugh McQuaid’s piece covering Sharkey’s proposal seem to think that’s a bad thing. But what’s wrong with having school officials put their spending packages directly before taxpayers rather than before municipal officials? Nothing, as far as I can tell.
“The idea would be the boards of ed would be able to set their own mill rate to reflect the cost of what it takes to run the schools system in those communities,” Sharkey said of MORE’s proposal. The goal is to add transparency to a town’s education expenses, which often are a single line item in a municipal budget, he said.
Not really. Yes, the education budget is typically two-thirds of the municipal budget and it’s often a single line presented in a referendum or town meeting, but detailed copies of a school district’s budget are easily obtainable from the district’s central office, or often on the district website. And if you really want to geek out, you can attend the public hearing on the school district’s spending proposal and ask school officials anything you want about it.
Which brings us to why Sharkey’s proposal would have little impact on rural and even some suburban districts. There are at least 18 regional school districts in Connecticut comprising two or more towns.
I live in a district that was formed by a special act of the General Assembly in 1937. It’s not only the first regional district in Connecticut but the first in New England (hence the formal name “Regional School District Number One”). It serves all of six towns in the state’s far Northwest Corner. The district holds a budget referendum in May. If it passes, the towns are simply assessed their share of the regional budget based on the number of students each sends to the regional high school. It’s a system that, despite occasional stumbles, works pretty well.
Sharkey’s package also calls for regionalizing special education programs in an effort to help towns share the cost of these expensive and erratic programs. That’s good policy. If just a few families with very needy children move into a town, out-of-district placements for special ed can rise by seven figures, putting an incredible strain on that town’s finances.
But again, regional school districts have been doing this for decades. In my district, special ed costs for each town are spread out proportionately over all six municipalities. So if one child moves into a district town who needs to be placed in a boarding school for the blind at $150,000 a year, the sticker shock can be borne collectively.
And there are other examples of rural towns doing their part to save money through consolidation of services. Organizations such as the Northwestern Connecticut Regional Planning Collaborative provide cost-effective land-use and planning services, saving member towns the expense of having to hire their own planners.
Since the 1970s, the towns of Salisbury and Sharon have shared an award-winning transfer station that is not only efficiently run, but has one of the highest recycling rates in the state.
So out of longstanding necessity, Connecticut’s small towns have been pioneers in the field of regionalization. And we’re already doing many of things that Sharkey wants us to. Hmm … maybe that’s why I’ve never seen him in Litchfield County.
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