In January 2019, Connecticut State Senator Looney made a simple proposal: State funding for school systems that serve an area with fewer than 40,000 residents would be phased out. The idea was that as state funding for small school districts dried up, small towns would merge their school districts. Rather than two small towns having two underfunded school systems, their merged district would be large enough to continue to receive state funding. The state would save money and the local school systems would run more efficiently.
Senator Looney explained that the idea was similar to the recent consolidation of probate court districts, reducing the number of probate districts from 117 to 54. The Office of the Probate Administrator has suggested that that consolidation saves the state $4 million per year. Senator Looney believed, with good reason, that reductions in the number of separate school districts could result in similar savings. (By the way, that’s nice progress in the probate courts, but New York State, with nearly six times as many people, has about the same number of districts handling probate matters. Our probate system has a long way to go, just in case Senator Looney is looking for someplace to save money for the state and its residents.)
Governor Lamont agreed in concept and pushed for a watered-down version of Senator Looney’s proposal.
The reaction from around the state, especially from small, rural towns and wealthy Fairfield County bedroom communities, was predictably swift and negative. It seems folks all over the state like their respective little enclaves just the way they are, and they weren’t interested in any change, no matter how much they or the state might save.
The General Assembly didn’t vote on the proposal in 2019.
The episode was instructive for several reasons:
First, the power of the people is evident. The voters wanted no part of merging school districts, and one thing politicians are good at is listening to the will of the voters. People grumble about increasing property taxes, but they don’t do anything about it. They grumble about (as they see it) bumbling politicians in Hartford who can’t balance the state budget. They grumble that those bumbling politicians can’t see that relentless spending is what drives endless tax increases. All that, but they aren’t willing to accept any change in their lives or in their towns to reduce their taxes.
So long as that’s how the citizens feel, the politicians will be powerless. Until the people start saying something different, the political system will not be effective in controlling spending or taxes or in making changes generally.
Second, Senator Looney’s proposal sought to solve the wrong problem. Looney was doing what Connecticut politicians are always doing, which is looking for some gimmick to reduce state spending. Although spending is a problem, spending isn’t the problem we should be worried about. If Senator Looney were focused on improving the state’s economic vitality, he would recognize that helping the state save a few million dollars a year is not going to get the job done. He would recognize that merging Voluntown’s school district with Griswold’s is not the answer.
Connecticut’s problem is economic stagnation or outright economic decline. Balancing the state budget will help combat economic stagnation, but alone it won’t be nearly enough. Economic revitalization comes from employers, not from the government. Employers bring jobs, jobs increase income, and increased income pays taxes.
Employers primarily choose cities, not states. General Electric moved to Boston, not to Massachusetts. Aetna picked New York City, not New York State. Massachusetts and New York have their own spending and taxation problems, but that didn’t deter GE and Aetna. They chose the cities.
We must fix our cities and make them attractive to employers. The economic future of Connecticut is in its urban centers – that’s where the people are, that’s where the infrastructure is, and that’s where economic growth, if it comes, will happen. So a proposal designed to force Connecticut’s smallest towns into the 21st Century is aimed at exactly the wrong places. Consolidating school districts in Litchfield County will do nothing to attract employers to Hartford and New Haven and Bridgeport, and if those cities fail, no savings realized in rural Connecticut towns will save those towns, our cities, or the state from gradual economic decline.
Senator Looney is a smart guy, so why did he make this proposal? Well, for one, almost any reduction in the state budget is worth pursuing. Second, he probably hoped to muster enough votes from the urban areas (who weren’t affected by his proposal) to force the idea down the throats of our reluctant rural neighbors. Third, solving the real problem looks a lot tougher, and Looney didn’t want to take on a fight he couldn’t win. (It turned out he hasn’t won the fight he did take on, even with a Democratic legislature and a Democratic governor. At least it was a first step, and it might go somewhere eventually.)
Truth be told, there’s nothing wrong with how Connecticut’s rural town governments are organized. Connecticut’s town government system was designed for rural towns. The real problem is that Connecticut’s town governance structure is an abominable way to organize modern urban areas. The problem is not that Putnam has its own school district; the problem is that Hartford and its contiguous towns have eight. The future of the state depends on making Hartford thrive, not saving a few bucks in Putnam. Senator Looney’s proposal ran from the real problem.
What Connecticut needs is a proposal that would create one government for Hartford, Windsor, Bloomfield, West Hartford, Newington, Wethersfield and East Hartford. Add a few more towns, if you’d like. Connecticut needs another, similar proposal for Bridgeport, and one for New Haven.
Of course, if the reaction to Senator Looney’s proposal was swift and loud, it isn’t difficult to imagine the outcry if he proposed merging urban municipalities. And that’s why no one should expect a political solution to this problem. The impetus for any movement to merge urban governance must come from the people. We have to recognize there can be no bright future for Connecticut until we act together to change how we govern ourselves.
Give Senator Looney credit. He’s trying. But he doesn’t need credit; he needs help. That help has to come from the people.