Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney from New Haven once again this year has proposed changes in state-funded school construction reimbursement rates. By reducing reimbursement to some of Connecticut’s smallest towns, Looney‘s proposal would create an incentive for those towns to abandon single-town school districts in favor of regional systems. The proposal would presumably have the effect of saving the state some money and causing the small towns to operate their school systems more cost effectively.
Senator Looney made a similar proposal last year, and Governor Lamont expressed initial support before backing away. I wrote an essay about the proposal last year, and I figure if Senator Looney can make the proposal again, I can write another essay about it. I suppose I could just republish last year’s essay, but somehow that doesn’t seem right. Besides, then I would have to go back and find the thing, and that seems like too much work. If you want to dig around in the February, March or April essays, be my guest.
I suspect I’ll say some of the same things I said last year, but Lester Holt says the same things every night, so I don’t see why I can’t repeat myself once a year. At least I won’t demean my readers by saying this is “breaking news.” Anyway, here goes:
I’ve written often about why Hartford and the surrounding towns should merge to form one city of 350,000 people or so. Senator Looney’s proposal is about getting small towns to share governance at least with respect to education. Some people might call both ideas “regionalism,” the term that folks in Connecticut use to describe any suggestion that local governance should be broadened to cover larger geographic areas and more people than each of our current towns. I’ve tried not to call changing the governance of a metropolitan area “regionalism,” because an area like Hartford and the seven contiguous towns isn’t what I’d call a “region.” The northeast corner of Connecticut or the northwest corner are properly called regions, but a metropolitan area is ordinarily called, well, a metropolitan area.
The differences between what Senator Looney and I are talking about, however, go well beyond nomenclature. Senator Looney’s proposal is basically about saving money for the state and only incidentally about a more rational way to organize local government. My proposal that Hartford and the surrounding towns merge into one city is about the future success or failure of our community and our state. Senator Looney’s proposal attacks only one symptom – state support for school construction. My proposal seeks to solve not the symptom but the problem itself – town government.
Without in any way intending to demean life in Connecticut’s smallest towns or the people who live there, let’s be honest about it: Small towns are not the future of Connecticut. Small towns have been shrinking and struggling across America for more than a century. Yes, we’ve seen the articles about how COVID-19 has driven people out of the cities and how technology is making telecommuting a realistic possibility, but we’d be foolish to think that small towns are the future of America. COVID-19 is a short-term phenomenon; urbanization has been going on for millennia, and urbanization will resume once COVID-19 becomes a historical event instead of a daily reality. Connecticut’s future depends on the success or failure of our cities.
Senator Looney’s proposal is in one sense about the future of Connecticut’s cities. His proposal says the small towns just aren’t all that important, so we should spend less on them. That’s true – in relative terms; Connecticut’s resources are best utilized if devoted to the cities, and any proposal to spend less on the small towns is consistent with that reality. Still, slapping the small towns in the face is not the ideal way to plan for the future of Connecticut’s cities. Leave the small towns alone – why punish the people who prefer that life?
Rather than trying to shave percentage points off what the state spends to support rural school construction each year, Senator Looney and other political leaders should be focused on real, annual savings that will promote the growth and vitality of our cities. Our leaders haven’t shown the political courage to face this important challenge and those self-interersted people who oppose change.
Rather than seeking to incentivize the merger of small-town school systems, Senator Looney should be creating incentives for cities and their surrounding towns to merge their school systems; in fact, those cities and towns should merge altogether. Operating eight separate municipalities in metropolitan Hartford simply makes no sense. It’s costly, probably to the tune of $100 million a year. It’s inefficient; does every town of 25,000 people need a head of social studies curriculum? It perpetuates racial segregation that violates the constitutional rights of our citizens. It creates unfair and unnecessary discrimination against the poor and the disadvantaged. Similarly sized metropolitan areas around the country don’t operate this way, leaving Connecticut cities at a competitive disadvantage.
Schools are the proverbial third rail in Connecticut politics. No politician wants to discuss any change in how we educate our children. And no one wants to talk about the inefficiency and the needless expense of town governance or how it perpetuates racial segregation in our towns and our schools.
Instead of picking on the small towns who aren’t bothering anyone, why doesn’t Senator Looney address the root cause of the waste, inefficiency, and racial segregation perpetuated by the way New Haven (his home town) and its suburbs are governed?