Although Connecticut’s public schools are well regarded compared to much of the United States, they depend on state funding that is often subject to mandates, regulations, and other restrictions that can lead to frustrations on the part of parents, teachers, taxpayers, and administrators.
Some of these concerns were voiced by the Cheshire Board of Education at its legislative affairs sub-committee meeting on Jan. 12.
Ordinarily a small gathering, this meeting included the whole Board and took place in Council Chambers at Town Hall. Senator Rob Sampson (R-16) and Representative Lezlye Zupkus (R-89) were present to discuss how politicians, educational leaders, and citizens can work together to promote educational success.
Zupkus, for the first time in her legislative career, is a member of the Education Committee and has long been an advocate for more local government control. However, as both she and Sampson argued, their ability to influence legislation is limited as members of the minority party. To that end, both legislators urged citizens to consider the effect of their votes.
Sampson highlighted philosophical differences between the parties.
“The people that are in charge at the state level … believe in a centralized government,” he stated, “ (and) they believe in a centralized bureaucracy and that the State Department of Education is going to have more talent and knowledge and experts to make determinations about the best direction for education in the state, and I disagree. And I would imagine that almost anyone in either political party that serves on a local board of education would disagree, too.”
Although the discussion touched on several topics, the legislation known as “Right to Read” was the primary concern for Board members.
Board Chair Tony Perugini, who also serves on the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) Executive Committee, said that, “With respect to the mandates, I don’t think that anybody here would say that every bill that influences education is a bad one.” The main issue with “Right to Read,” as he characterized it, was the lack of dialogue.
“I’ll work with anybody in Hartford,” said Perugini. “Before becoming law or before being drafted, just have folks spoken to, or (reach) out to their local bodies on how things would be impacting them. I could tell you, in this (situation with Right to Read), that didn’t happen. It was done outside of Connecticut with outside influence, outside experts brought to Hartford. I got the sense from the (Department of Education) that they’re rushing to move on this because it was forced upon them, and here we are.”
Zupkus said she had filed legislation to address the Right to Read issue. She also reported that some schools in her District that had been using one of the mandated programs “are not going to be using it anymore because it had a adverse effect on the school.”
Another item that the Board has mentioned previously pertains to special education. As Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jeff Solan put it, “When there’s a dispute between the family and the school about what’s the best path forward for a child,” the process sometimes ends up in a mediation setting. Once in mediation, Solan explained, Connecticut is one of two states where the burden of proof is on the District.
“It really tends to drive up costs and doesn’t necessarily support positive outcomes,” he added.
Costs are the concern with another unfunded mandate aimed at the uniform inspection of HVAC systems on a five-year schedule. Solan suggested that it would amount to an additional expenditure of around $200,000 for something the schools already do on an annual basis.
Sampson offered an explanation of mandates based on his decade-plus experience in the legislature.
“These bills are put before the legislature and there’s always this understanding that if you don’t support any one of these myriad of items somehow you’re against these things,” he stated. “And a lot of legislators are bullied into voting in favor of state mandates on local boards of education even though they might not even be inclined to want to do it.”
Teacher shortages also pose a concern for the District. Solan said he felt Cheshire was still a “strong draw” but wondered what could be done at the state level to make the profession “more attractive.”
“I feel guilty when teachers leave other districts and come to Cheshire. Not only do I feel guilty, but now I’m not hiring kids out of college at ($50,000), I’m hiring seasoned people at ($100,000) ,” he explained.
That potential budget savings, per Solan, “no longer really exists because of the pool not being quite what it used to be. Anything we can do (as a state) to support a path to certification and drawing new people into the field is great.”
“It’s interesting because all of these were the exact things that the other superintendents (in my District) hit on,” Zupkus said. “Hopefully, we can get something done to help, but I would encourage the superintendents, the Board of Ed, CABE, all these people: be vocal.”
“We’ve got to battle the mentality that exists in Hartford where we get more and more mandates every year because they sound like good ideas. The best idea is to let sound, well-performing districts govern themselves,” said Sampson.