Consolidation of the Wilton and Norwalk school districts: has someone taken looney pills?!
Consolidation of school districts statewide — potentially along probate court geographic boundary lines, of all things — doesn’t suggest much careful thought about how educational considerations might differ from decedent-estates ones.
If the objective is for one school district to help to elevate another, then surely Norwalk would be a bad choice to pair with Wilton given the high quality of both Norwalk’s and Wilton’s schools. Norwalk schools offer much excellence including in such outstanding programs as the specialized Global Studies (High) School housed within the same impressive building as Brien McMahon High School.
I’m assuming the real underlying driver in this consolidation proposal is the same one that has propelled state-court litigation spanning multiple years over what our state constitution requires in terms of educational quality and equality for students across our state. It goes without saying that there is an incredibly wide gap between the best and the worst among Connecticut public schools. That being said, Norwalk is clearly among the better-performing school districts statewide, and Wilton ranks in the top 1% of all schools nationwide.
So, how does this proposed consolidation accomplish anything in terms of bringing up a lowest-tier school district when it would combine two districts that aren’t remotely near the lowest ranked? Consolidating Wilton with, say, Bridgeport — among the lowest-performing school districts in our entire state — could indeed meet such a pairing criterion, but how could such a consolidation ever happen given necessary busing of students huge distances, dropping Wilton students into badly underperforming learning environments, and creating a huge management-oversight issue in terms of that large geographic separation?
The certain result of a Bridgeport consolidation would be a mass exodus of parents with school-aged children from Wilton, compromising both our town’s health and the educational services that can be offered Wilton students. So that kind of consolidation, even if physically possible, would drag one district down without bringing up the other and in the process destroy the financial base that undergirds the better-performing district.
And even in a Norwalk-Wilton school-district consolidation, the governance issues are very challenging and likely to drag Wilton down. Norwalk, at five times Wilton’s size in population, will undoubtedly dominate district decision-making. If there is to be some form of joint decision-making on a basis other than population size, what would that basis be? Our two towns in the past have taken diametrically opposed views on major matters. For example, Norwalk was a strong proponent of pushing Super 7 right through the middle of Wilton. That effort was finally defeated by Wilton but only after years of hard work and uncertainty for our town. We shouldn’t expect kumbaya moments in our joint governance of a school district.
How about operations on the individual school level? Are schools across both towns supposed to be physically consolidated into single buildings? If so, at what time, expense and disruption in busing students longer distances to make the physical consolidation work? By contrast, if all of the schools in the newly consolidated district are to be maintained as they are, what will be the vaunted savings from consolidation?
Alternatively, are those consolidation savings supposed to come from central office cost-savings? Our Wilton district’s central office is very leanly staffed and now actually shares top leadership with our town offices on both the financial and the building-supervision sides of operations. Will those current intra-town joint staffing savings be lost as a result of consolidation, and how much can be saved by merging lean central office staffs anyway?
If this district-consolidation legislative proposal is really a not-so-subtle way of palming the state’s teacher-pension obligations onto its municipalities, that’s a terribly backhanded way of accomplishing this objective. Let’s address that issue head-on, not by gumming up well-performing districts in needless and wasteful consolidations. And if the objective is to fund underperforming districts, there are lots better ways of doing that too, even though those ways may be financially painful to our state’s wealthier towns. Let’s just be honest about what we’re doing. And let’s not drag out this crazy consolidation idea with lengthy “studies” and the like that only serve to leave a threatening cloud of uncertainty over affected towns.
In fact, if what this legislative proposal does is simply to get everyone’s attention focused on state education-funding issues and consolidation quickly gets dropped entirely in that focus shift, then maybe it could wind up being more shrewd than looney after all.