Regionalism: How Much Are We Willing To Sacrifice To Reduce Government?
January 22, 2010
Democrats in the legislature have taken up the regionalism cause again, appointing a blue ribbon panel to search for ways to encourage towns to work together as the state faces a deficit in the billions of dollars.
This is admirable, but I wonder if we are ready for less government when this means eliminating services we take for granted.
What if municipalities tried to trim the costliest portion of government — the public schools that make up most of town budgets?
Let's go to the lovely Litchfield County towns of Bethlehem and Woodbury for a demonstration of how hard this might be. For decades, Regional School District 14 has served these two communities, operating middle and high schools.
Struggling with overcrowding and rising costs three years ago, the district's board decided to further regionalize, replacing duplicate elementary schools with a kindergarten-to-second grade school in Bethlehem and a grades 3-to-5 school in Woodbury.
This did not go over well with some local parents, who organized and fought back.
Last month the parents prevailed when Superior Court Judge John W. Pickard ruled in their favor, requiring Region 14 to restore separate elementary schools in each town — unless voters approve the combined schools with a referendum. This will cost each town a lot more money.
Obviously, this is not how you reduce the size of government. But it could be what the people want. Which illustrates my point: We think we want less government, but do we really?
A plaintiff in the lawsuit, Susan Scherf, told me she moved back to her hometown of Bethlehem because she wanted a local school where her two children, including one who has a form of diabetes, would be close to home.
Scherf said the Region 14 school board ignored the people it is supposed to serve.
"There is no oversight of regional boards of education. There is no accountability. This was a monumental decision," Scherf told me. The more we talked, the more I could understand her point — aren't local schools all about local control?
Now Region 14 must go back to having separate elementary schools in each town. That's a long way from less government.
I see why parents want public schools close by. But the problem is we can no longer afford to have 169 towns each with a set of duplicative services. And since schools make up 80 or 90 percent or more of town budgets, they are the obvious place to look as we try to figure out cheaper government.
That can mean, as it did in Woodbury and Bethlehem, longer bus rides for children and schools that aren't right down the street.
Region 14 Superintendent of Schools Robert D. Cronin told me that when he reconfigured the schools in 2007, the idea was to save money, expand programs and appropriately group children by age level — and not duplicate services between the two small towns.
"The Bethlehem parents were very upset," Cronin said. But "there were a lot of educational benefits. We were able to offer full-day kindergarten. We were not able to do that before."
"The distance between the two schools is 7 miles. I think the children are just fine. It's the parents that just haven't been able to come to terms with it."
Scherf and other parents say all they want is a chance to vote on the idea. Cronin told me when they go to the voters to build or expand schools, it gets voted down. The Region 14 school board says you can't run a school district if you have to go back to the voters every time you make a change.
My point here isn't to take a side. It's to show that it is hard to come up with more efficient government. The easy thing is to study the problem.
The difficult part comes in accepting the change. Sometimes, that means a longer ride to school.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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