Hugh Bailey: Lamont flinches on school changes
After spending most of August out of sight, surfacing only to spend time fishing with New York Gov. Andrew “Worst Democrat Since Joe Lieberman” Cuomo, Ned Lamont is back. He still doesn’t have the votes for tolls, but did have time for a late-summer fight with the Legislature over bonding.
And he said something revealing this week about one of Connecticut’s biggest long-term challenges, and indicated yet again that after some initial dalliance, he has lost interest in taking it on.
According to CTNewsJunkie, Lamont was asked Tuesday if he was going to introduce school regionalization plans again.
After noting there are “incredible savings” to be had, Lamont said he isn’t the one to do it. “I’m not sure why the governor’s got to be involved in that at all,” he said. “You’d think that a local mayor or first selectman who wants to hold down property taxes and say we’re doing better by our students would do this on their own.”
You’d also think that local mayor or first selectman would want to get re-elected, and would know that school regionalization plans bring angry suburban hordes out to rallies.
So here’s why the governor has to be involved: If he isn’t, it won’t ever happen.
Connecticut does regionalism poorly. There is cooperation among towns, including regional school districts and resident state troopers in low-population areas. There are councils of governments that can plan projects or secure funding. Some towns share sewer systems.
But it’s all voluntary. Towns can rarely be forced to do anything, and while incentives are nice, they only go so far. As Lamont indicated, it could be in the long-term interest of a town to keep expenses down by collaborating with a neighbor, but that’s not the same as short-term electoral prospects.
It’s not that Lamont doesn’t understand the problem, particularly as it comes to schools. As he did in the spring when his administration first brought up the idea, Lamont last week specifically mentioned Waterbury, noting its schools are crowded while many in nearby towns are underpopulated.
And not just Waterbury. Connecticut’s population is stagnant overall, but it is going up in the cities even as suburbs across the state are looking at declining school enrollment. It will be increasingly hard to justify keeping city schools crowded while classrooms in next-door towns sit unused.
According to a Hearst Connecticut Media report two years ago, of 62 districts analyzed across the state, only 11 gained students between 2012 and 2016. Included in that 11 were New Haven, Bridgeport, Waterbury, Danbury and Stamford.
Connecticut is among the slowest-growing states by population in the nation, but the story looks different broken down by demographics. From 1980 to 2010, the percentage of the population born in another country rose from 8.6 percent to 13.1 percent. And the countries people are coming from has shifted. In 1980, about 3 percent of the state population was born in a non-European foreign country. By 2010, that number was up to 9.2 percent, and is likely higher now.
All this makes for major changes in the makeup of the state. From 2000 to 2010, the number of non-Hispanic white people in Connecticut dropped by 81,000. In every other group, the numbers went up by 127,000.
A growing economy requires a growing population, and about the only growth Connecticut is seeing is from people born in non-European countries. They are primarily settling in the cities and tend to be younger than the state average. Meanwhile, people in the suburbs are more likely to be leaving the state, and the ones that remain are older, on average. The unavoidable consequence is crowded city schools increasingly filled with a foreign-born population and nearby suburbs facing declining enrollments as far as the eye can see.
The issue here is clear enough, not just to the governor, but for everyone who thinks the screaming suburbanites last spring were worried about “local control.”
Hugh Bailey is editorial page editor of the Connecticut Post and New Haven Register. He can be reached at email@example.com.