Bob Duff and Cathy Osten: A goal for our school districts and our future

Connecticut has some of the best public schools in the country, and we want to continue to be proud of them. However, demographic and budgetary circumstances have led us to a place where the state can no longer afford to fund business as usual. We can all agree that we want to allocate the resources to guarantee students have access to high-quality opportunities and achieve excellence. That is our goal.

Consolidating school district functions serving fewer than 2,000 students is the pragmatic solution to realizing this goal. This would be an effort to find efficiencies at the administrative level and improve student opportunities. It can involve the merger of administrative functions, the combining of non-instructional services such as IT, HR, finance and after-school services. Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about closing neighborhood schools, busing children long distances or local communities losing control over important education decisions.

There is no doubt that Connecticut took a hard hit economically during the recession in 2007-2008. As a result, the birth rate in our state decreased by significant numbers just as it did nationally. The result of those trends is that over the last 10 years, our enrollment numbers in public K-12 schools statewide have decreased by 7 percent or by approximately 35,000 students. Out of 166 public school districts in Connecticut, 84 of them currently serve fewer than 2,000 students. Six very small school districts serve less than 100 children.

As many know, up to two-thirds of all state funding to our towns and cities is for our public schools. These dollars must be spent in the classroom to benefit our students. According to a UConn study conducted in 2010, the optimal district size in Connecticut, in terms of educational achievement among students and cost effectiveness, is approximately 2,800 students. For Connecticut to maintain districts with dwindling enrollment would be a step backward, when all we want is to see our students move forward.

If we were to consolidate some of the state’s smallest school districts as noted above, we could improve students’ access to comprehensive programming like Advanced Placement courses, electives such as art and music education, and athletics. When small school districts consolidate, they also gain an advantage in cost negotiations over contracts like busing and food services. This does not mean that a bigger district swallows up a smaller district. It could mean that two or three small districts join forces to see benefits.

It is understandable that the reaction to this initial discussion has been skepticism. We are talking about changing a system that has been in place and worked for more than a century. However, since circumstances in many communities have changed, preserving the past is not an option. Instead, thoughtful planning could mean better outcomes for our children in the future. Let’s approach this together.

When the legislative session convened this January, it was clear that it could be a new day in our state. Connecticut voters elected a new governor last fall, as well as 11 new members of the Senate and 30 new members of the House. We, as state leaders, must respond and make hard choices to address what voters have clearly asked for: progress and change. That work can start in our districts, and truly impact our students’ futures.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff represents the 25th District, which includes Norwalk and Darien. State Sen. Cathy Osten represents the 19th District in eastern Connecticut.