Democratic View: Opposition and inquiry

Reactions to State Sen. President Pro Tempore Martin Looney’s bill to require towns with fewer than 40,000 residents to regionalize schools are loud, negative, and justified. Looney’s and similarly misguided bills are blunt bowie knives for delicate concerns that require laser scalpel. Ridgefield Democrats oppose all efforts to force schools to combine.
Legislators across Connecticut, including Ridgefield’s Sen. Will Haskell (D-26th), Rep. John Frey (R-111th), and Rep. Kenneth Gucker (D-138th) oppose forced regionalization. Sen. Haskell spoke for many legislators when he wrote, “I will continue to actively oppose any measure that would force schools in the 26th District to regionalize.”
Ridgefield spends thriftily for public education, with a very low expenditure-per-student for our District Reference Group (DRG). With nine schools and nearly 5,000 students, Ridgefield achieves near-to-optimal class and school sizes, so there are no significant potential facility savings. Any desired facility adjustments can be achieved solely within Ridgefield. Ridgefield is also reasonably-optimized for administrative personnel, with a sustainable ratio of administrative to classroom personnel expense. Ridgefield’s virtuous thriftiness doesn’t rule out benefits from limited forms of wider coordination however.
It will be unfortunate if public activism focuses solely on narrow opposition. Calls to blindly oppose unwritten/unfinished bills and denunciations of efforts to merely study potential reforms are unhelpful and will deter knowledge-guided action. Disdain for knowledge pollutes too much public discourse. We must not permit such disdain to cripple our schools. There are forms of coordination that can improve educational outcomes and reduce costs. Such measures should be subjected to robust analytic inquiry and implemented wherever proved to produce superior educational and fiscal outcomes.
For example, Ridgefield might benefit from state-coordinated purchasing of standardized school inputs (services and products). Isolated purchasing results in each town paying more than it would if purchasing was aggregated. Currently, many towns save on faculty/staff health insurance by voluntarily purchasing through a state-coordinated plan. Similar state-coordinated programs for voluntary purchasing should be explored for other common education expenditures.
Ridgefielders might also benefit if heavily subsidized towns spend more efficiently. Towns with student populations less than 1/10th of Ridgefield’s receive up to six times as much state education support as Ridgefield, or spend as much as 150-175% per student. Those towns’ spending and subsidies partly result from excessive administrative costs. Taxpayers in Ridgefield and similarly thrifty towns should be freed from subsidizing such waste. It is fair and reasonable for the state to employ fiscal incentives to encourage towns with excessive administrative-expense-per-student to combine administrative functions with neighboring towns where savings will result without negatively impacting educational outcomes. No town should be forced to combine administrative functions, but neither should Ridgefield taxpayers be forced to subsidize another town’s choice to retain unnecessary bureaucracy.
Ridgefield Democrats oppose all efforts to force schools to combine. We support efforts to spend efficiently and to encourage less thrifty towns to share and reduce administrative expenses.
Alex Harris is chair of the Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee, which provides this column.