Notes from the Board Table: State education mandate relief — thank you, Hartford

Usually when I take the time to update our community on an education matter coming out of Hartford, it’s bad news. And heaven knows the current budget debacle and fiscal uncertainty provide enough fodder to fill plenty of pages. Instead though, I wanted to reach out and inform you about something good that came out of Hartford earlier this summer.

If you follow our Board of Education proceedings with any regularity, you may recall that we frequently cite “unfunded mandates” as a serious impediment to our work and drain on our financial resources. It seems that too often Hartford legislators slap together solutions for problems elsewhere in the state without bothering to fully understand the depths of the impact of implementing their new mandates. For several years, we felt like we were drowning in unfunded mandates. Among the more onerous requirements:

Regional Calendars. Beginning with the 2016-17 school year, every Connecticut school district was forced to adopt the same calendar as other schools in its regional district. The state is divided into six regions, and we are part of the Cooperative Educational Services (CES) region, along with Bridgeport, Darien, Easton/Region 9, Fairfield, Greenwich, Monroe, New Canaan, Norwalk, Ridgefield, Shelton, Stamford, Stratford, Trumbull, Weston and Westport. Under the uniform calendar scenario, every district would have the same start and end dates, the same vacations and essentially the same professional development days.

We strongly opposed the uniform calendar for two key reasons:

  • It denied us the ability to create a calendar that best served the needs of the Wilton community, including the flexibility to schedule a March break as a way to accommodate spring sport athletes.
  • It forced us to “compete” against other districts for professional development speakers and experts which raised our costs.

Mandatory restraint and seclusion training for all teachers. The state also determined that every teacher and staff member should undergo training to learn proper student restraint and seclusion procedures, even though such situations rarely if ever occur in Wilton. While situations where students put themselves or others at risk of imminent danger are certainly serious, we felt it was more appropriate to focus the training on staff members who are most likely to face such a situation. Having to train all staff would cost an estimated $100,000, and take away precious professional development time that could be spent on more appropriate topics.

Education requirements for expelled students. For many years, Wilton has efficiently provided for the education of the relatively few students who are expelled by offering flexible education experiences tailored to each student’s specific needs. This came to an end though, when the state mandated 900 hours of alternative education to each expelled student. We opposed this measure because we felt 900 hours was an arbitrary number, and because it severely tied our hands in terms of allowing us to customize programming to meet each student’s particular needs.

Student Information Management. A few years ago, the state Task Force on Educational Mandate Reduction proposed that the CT Department of Education identify and procure a single-source provider for a student information management system.  The task force stated that a single system for the entire state would provide tremendous economies of scale, and noted that 70% of Connecticut districts already used a single vendor for student information management. The Wilton Schools supported this recommendation because of the potential for significant cost savings, and the savings in man hours dedicated to completing state-mandated reports. We felt this provision was a win-win for Wilton and the state, and were disappointed when the Department of Education failed to take action.

Fortunately, we found a true ally in state Rep. Gail Lavielle, who understood and shared our concerns and agreed to help. She went to work generating support among her colleagues in the state House of Representatives, and truly worked tirelessly on our behalf.  We were pleasantly surprised when she notified us in March that a bill had been filed, House Bill 7276, that addressed every one of our concerns, along with some priorities listed by other districts.

Anyone who has ever followed the path a bill takes in its route to becoming a law understands three things:

  • Most bills die before ever being considered at the committee level.
  • Bills that do make it through the committee process and on to the House and Senate floor usually look very different than they did when first introduced.
  • Having a bill pass both the House and Senate, and then signed by the governor is no small feat.

But that is exactly what happened. Lavielle worked to generate support among her House colleagues, while Superintendent Kevin Smith worked with superintendents from other Fairfield Country districts. At the same time, state Senator Toni Boucher (a former member of the Wilton Board of Education) gave her strong support to the bill, as did state Rep. Tom O’Dea, who represents a portion of Wilton along with New Canaan.

Lavielle kept us apprised, but understanding the slim chance any bill has of actually becoming a law, we remained cautiously optimistic. Until that is, HB 7276 passed the House in May, and the Senate in June, and was signed into law by Gov. Malloy in July.

But it gets even better. Not only did the legislation provide the specific mandate relief we had been seeking, but the legislature enacted an additional piece of beneficial legislation: SB 953, which eliminates stifling mandates regarding professional development. The state had set rigid requirements regarding professional development topics and content, which often had little to do with Wilton curriculum content. Now, with these mandates repealed, Wilton can offer professional development that best fits the needs of our district.

As we begin our new school year, free from these onerous mandates, our teachers and administrators will be able to enjoy a bit more flexibility in tailoring programs and policies that best meet the needs of Wilton students and our community. But none of this relief would have been possible without the support of our state elected officials, especially Gail Lavielle who really led the charge.  

While I wish I could say that all the onerous mandates from Hartford have disappeared, this relief is a tremendous step forward. It is also an excellent example of the partnership we have with our elected officials in Hartford, and the positive outcomes that are possible. Our board of education is proud of this great relationship, and know that our legislators are working hard on our behalf.

With so much negative news coming out of Hartford, I thought it appropriate to draw attention to something good that happened, that will directly impact our schools.

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