Hartford - A little-publicized provision in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's education bill that would penalize small, high-spending school districts to encourage more district consolidations is proving controversial with selectmen and town councilors across the state.
The provision would begin in the 2015-16 school year and apply to any school district with fewer than 1,000 students.
Under the proposal, the first time annual per-pupil spending in one of these districts exceeds the state average by 10 percent or more, that district's annual state education aid would be cut by $100 per pupil.
The size cut would grow in $100 increments every year that the district's per-pupil spending remains 10 percent above the state average. The maximum penalty after five years would be $500 per pupil.
The governor recently explained the penalty system as a mechanism for reining in costs, encouraging efficiency and relieving upward pressure on local property taxes.
To further encourage consolidations, Malloy added $300,000 to his budget plan to help small school districts study consolidation as an option.
"We really need to start planning for the future," Malloy said Wednesday, "and whether it makes sense to have very small districts, to have HR directors and facility directors and superintendents and assistant superintendents.
"It's hard to justify 160 school districts with that kind of repetition of costs."
The state Department of Education this week released a list of 18 school districts that would face penalties if the new system were in place now. Preston and Lyme were on that list. The state singled out the towns because per-pupil spending there exceeds the current state average by more than 10 percent - more than $15,392 per pupil. Preston spent $15,749 per pupil during the 2010-11 school year for its 600 students, according to the report, and Lyme spent $17,122 per pupil for its 298 students.
But it was unclear Friday why Lyme made the list, because it is part of a consolidated district; years ago it merged with Old Lyme to form Regional School District 18.
State education officials did not respond to multiple requests for information and comment.
Lyme First Selectman Ralph Eno said Friday that he didn't know why his town appeared on the list, although he has heard gripes about the governor's proposal from other officials in small towns across the state.
"This forced regionalization doesn't always pan out to be the panacea that people in Hartford say it will be," Eno said. "So from that perspective, this kind of thing worries me. It's a broad-brush approach that might not necessarily serve the interests of small rural communities all that well."
Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon said he agrees with the governor that school district consolidation could make sense for some towns - and perhaps even Preston. But he disagrees with the penalties in the bill.
"This is a stick approach," Congdon said. "I would much rather see the carrot approach, where towns are given incentives to regionalize, versus a penalty and just coming up with an arbitrary number."
Congdon said that consolidating with North Stonington schools is something "we definitely need to look at." The potential benefits would include fewer administrator positions and the ability to offer a broader array of classes.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities is also concerned about the penalty idea. Jim Finley, executive director and chief executive officer of the organization that represents cities and towns, said CCM would prefer an incentive-based approach instead of threatened cuts to state aid. As an incentive, Finley suggested increasing the $100 bonus in state aid that towns currently receive for each student enrolled in a K-12 regional district.
The Connecticut Council of Small Towns also has expressed concerns about the penalties, said Elizabeth Gara, the council's public policy director.
But Malloy defended his plan to encourage school district consolidation during an interview Thursday on National Public Radio. "We're not trying to force [any] school districts together," he said. "If you want to have a superintendent making $225,000 for administering a system that is tiny ... you can do that. But first of all I think you need need to have a discussion about whether any of that makes any sense."
The governor's education bill faced two public hearings this week before the legislature's Education Committee. Other sections of the bill would revamp the teacher-tenure system in public schools, expand funding for charter and other alternative schools and create a turnaround program for the 25 lowest-performing schools in the state.