Whatever his reasons, Gov. Ned Lamont’s decision this week to backtrack on school regionalization plans should be recognized for what it is — a significant reversal.
The legislative session kicked off in January with a slew of proposals that aimed to take on costs that come with running separate school districts for most of the state’s 169 municipalities. One plan would have forced regionalization on schools that have fewer than 2,000 students, while another would have applied to towns below 40,000 population — meaning nearly all of them.
Lamont was his normal conciliatory self throughout the debate, but did not do much to clarify exactly what he wanted, other than to save money.
In the meantime, suburban Connecticut erupted.
“Hands off our schools,” came the call from residents, petitions, protest signs and even many representatives from around the state, especially in the southwestern corner. While no proposal at any time called for changes at the classroom level, the opposition was instant and sustained.
Lamont might have expected as much. People tend to get worked up when it comes to local schools. Still, he insisted that he wanted only to encourage savings, not to force anything.
But even that was too far for critics, and their pressure worked. This week, Lamont submitted a revised proposal that eliminated terms like “redistricting” and “consolidation” and instead focused on encouragement of shared services. But then, shared services are already encouraged.
The bill continues to include plans for withholding funds for certain small school districts that don’t combine superintendent positions, but it’s not much of a penalty, and given the trajectory it would seem likely that even that much of a push will fail to pass. Whatever Lamont hoped to gain by combining educational services is probably gone.
The promise in Connecticut of potential cost-savings from consolidation has always run into the roadblock of home rule — town residents want to make sure that their money is under their control and will benefit their community. Even as most town lines are fairly arbitrary and date back centuries, it has proven a formidable obstacle. Without a push from above — such as penalties from the state government — no major consolidations among towns was likely.
That was ostensibly the reasoning behind the school plans, which would have affected back-office functions and administrators. But even that was too much.
Nearly all the political oxygen in Hartford today is taken up by tolling. Some form of fee-for-driving plan appears headed toward approval, though nothing is certain. As controversial as tolls have proven, though, school consolidation may have been even more polarizing. It’s possible that, rather than fight on two fronts, the governor is picking his battles.
Still, it doesn’t say much for his pledge to do what’s necessary to cut costs. This was an unpopular fight, one that would require making a case against sustained opposition. But it was a fight that was worth having, and is now an opportunity lost.