BY LINDA CONNER LAMBECK
HARTFORD — Easton and Redding officials are worried they may have consolidated school districts 55 years too soon.
Tucked into Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s voluminous education reform bill is an incentive for school districts to consolidate. Those that do would be rewarded. Districts with fewer than 1,000 students and spend more per pupil than the state average, would be penalized.
So interspersed Wednesday among the dozens of speakers who appeared before the Legislature’s education committee to support increased funding for charter schools and school districts, were a handful of Region 9 officials who cautioned against some unintended consequences in the 163-page document.
Based on current population projections, all three districts are each likely to be subject to the financial penalties, said Christopher Hocker, a member of the Region 9 school board. Student enrollment in Easton and Redding is just over 1,000 students. In Region 9, there are fewer than 1,000 students.
Region 9 is a consolidated district of a single high school, Joel Barlow, which serves both Easton and Redding. Easton and Redding each has its own elementary school, middle school and school board. All three boards have a common superintendent and central office. It’s been that way since 1957.
Hocker called the governor’s proposal arbitrary, heavy-handed and perverse because it ignores efficiencies already under way and threatens to penalize towns that dare spend above the state average on their students.
“We’ve already done it,” said state Rep. John Shaban, R-Redding. He called the plan a poorly conceived attempt at forced regionalization and a blunderbluss approach to education control. “You have to provide (an exception) for small towns such as mine that have already done what Section 11 seeks to achieve.”
Others wondered what would happen to small districts that want to consolidate, but couldn’t find willing partners.
Benjamin Barnes, secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, said it was not his intent to penalize districts already doing what the state is hoping to accomplish. He said he is willing to work to clarify language in the bill.
Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor said although changes may be made in the bill, this is “our moment” and that education reform will happen this year despite widespread objection to proposals that would change teacher training, evaluations and tenure.
“Our students have waited long enough,” he said. “Let’s end the waiting.”
Others at the hearing talked in support of increased funding of charter schools. Malloy is proposing increasing funding from $9,400 to $12,000, but with $1,000 of the increase coming from districts where charter school students live.
The support came not only from students and staff at the schools, but some local school officials.
Derby Schools Superintendent Steve Tracy said students in some communities have too few choices and he applauded efforts to give the state a stronger charter school law. In addition to funding, the state would also allow the creation of more state funded charter schools and locally funded charter schools.
Robert Trefry, chairman of the Bridgeport Board of Education, said he liked the idea to create local charter schools as long as local districts retained the authority to monitor such schools and intervene if necessary. The governor would give districts an extra $3,000 per pupil if it created such a school.
Lais Lima, a senior at Bridge Academy, a state-funded charter school in Bridgeport since 1997, said the school gave her a close-knit family atmosphere and a shot at college. “There is no hiding from Mr. (Timothy) Dutton, the school headmaster. When he yells your name down the hall, then you are in trouble,” said Lima. She said the benefits outweighed the lack of a volleyball team or Advanced Placement classes.
Sandy Lefkowitz, a board member at Bridge Academy Charter School in Bridgeport, said extra funding would ensure that programs like the art of filmmaking she brought to the school four years ago could be continued. She called the state’s funding of charter schools an investment.
A day earlier, Claudia Phillips showed up at the Capitol with her three children and niece to express their gratitude to the governor for proposing to expand charter schools and funding. Her twin daughters attend Achievement First middle school in Bridgeport. Her son, a fifth-grader, attends Thomas Hooker School.
Phillips said her daughters are challenged much more than her son.
“We want our children to be challenged,” she said.