From this mornings Republican-American. Combine this story with the story in yesterdays Lakeville Journal and you see the major problems ahead for Region 1.
Council: Enrollment down, education costs up
Decisions needed soon, speaker says
BY RUTH EPSTEIN
TORRINGTON — With school populations declining and education costs increasing, towns will be forced to make some difficult decisions, said Jonathan Costa, director of school programs at Education Connection. Costa spoke at Thursday’s meeting of the Northwest Hills Council of Governments.
“The trends are borne by forces beyond your control,” he told the group of area first selectmen. “Economic and demographic factors are leading to a decrease in enrollment and the problem is probably the worst here in the Northwest Corner.”
Costa said the downward enrollment spiral began in 2008. Of the 31 communities in the Education Connection region, 29 have seen a decrease in the last five years, he noted. The only municipalities bucking the trend are New Milford and Danbury, but the numbers there are close to falling as well.
Costa said one method to handle the decline is regional cooperation, but such arrangements must be agreed upon unilaterally.
“The ease of getting into them must be balanced by the ease of getting out,” Costa said.
A school district must give one year’s notice if it wishes to opt out, which can leave the remaining school or schools in a problem situation.
Another method Costa recommended is a formalized regional education arrangement. If the towns want to widen their area and bring in more towns, all must agree.
Costa noted that some of the towns represented at COG are conducting merger studies, such as the elementary schools in Norfolk and Colebrook, where one town could benefit and another would not because of the existing law.
He also spoke about the 18 regional school districts in Connecticut, all of which were formed during times of economic and demographic expansions.
“They saw they could get something out of it that they couldn’t do on their own and none have failed,” Costa said.
But now merger talks are being held in a time of contraction and there is nothing to be gained by the laws in place.
“If you don’t change the laws, the proposals won’t go through,” he said. “Joining together could raise per pupil costs and equalizing the distribution of per pupil expenses is not legal.”
If two towns join forces, one town is left with an empty building, Costa said. That town would need assistance in helping to reconstitute that building.
Costa touched on the issue of small classes, which are prevalent in the northwestern part of the state.
“They can be good until they become a problem,” he said, noting such challenges as heavily weighted one-gender classes.
Sharon First Selectman Brent M. Colley wondered about setting up an elementary school in one Region 1 town and a middle school in another. Falls Village First Selectman Patricia A. Mechare said the idea of establishing a middle school was floated many years ago and was strongly opposed.
She spoke about her town’s school, which has an enrollment of 77 in kindergarten through grade eight. She said so far the community is willing to bear the costs because residents think they have a great school. If there were no school in the town, property values would be diminished, she said.
Mechare said a past study about whether to combine with Cornwall concluded there would be no financial savings.
Costa sympathized with the town leaders, noting they are in a tough situation. He said in the long term there probably will be economic consequences if they don’t merge because their educational systems are so small.
“At what point does expense overcome cultural resistance to create new configurations?” he asked rhetorically.
Kent First Selectman Bruce K. Adams asked COG members to continue the discussion at future meetings.