Notes from the Board Table: State mandates create financial burdens

In my seven years serving on the Board of Education, I’ve come to learn that the most frustrating part of running a school district is dealing with the overly zealous, often illogical and always unfunded mandates that come down from Hartford. However well-intentioned, state lawmakers’ propensity to “solve” problems by coming up with “onesize- fits-all” solutions affects the Wilton schools by taking up valuable staff time, and by forcing us to spend scarce funds.
I raise this now, because Superintendent Kevin Smith recently participated in the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) legislative forum, during which he had an opportunity to discuss issues that are especially problematic to the Wilton schools. A few of these issues include:
Unfunded mandates. Every mandate handed down from Hartford costs money to implement, and the state legislature has yet to provide adequate funding for any initiative. In most cases, in fact, the state provides zero funding. For example, a few years ago, we were required to develop “student success plans” for every student, beginning in Grade 6. Each success plan was to include student academic data along with information about potential career aspirations, and possible post-high school plans. Once we succeeded in pinning down our sixth graders about their career and college plans, we were to create a system for storing that information in an easily accessible format. Never mind that the Wilton schools already captures this information about high school students via our Naviance student portal, or that student academic information is already computerized. Neither of those facts was sufficient to meet the terms of the mandate. As a result, the district was required to expand our Naviance system to include Middlebrook, and staff members spent hundreds of hours creating accounts for our middle school students. I’m not sure what Hartford will have us do if one of those sixth graders changes their mind about their future profession, but I’m sure it will cost us money.
Regional calendar. Beginning with this 2016-17 school year, Wilton is required to follow the same calendar as the 16 other school districts that comprise our “education region.” As a result, Wilton has lost the ability to create a schedule that addresses our community’s preferences and priorities. Gone is discussion about when to have spring or winter breaks, and whether to start school before or after Labor Day. The thinking in Hartford was that requiring all school districts to follow the same schedule would help districts share services such as transportation. Except in our semi-rural district, there is no sharing of services. It’s simply not practical for Wilton kids to share buses with students in New Canaan, Ridgefield or Weston.
Background checks. The state requires a background check be performed on every district employee. While this is certainly important, and a practice that Wilton takes seriously, the current process is highly inefficient. What would be most effective is to establish a state-maintained listing of individuals who have successfully completed a background check. That way, a pool of pre-screened candidates would be available. Job candidates and teachers moving between districts would not have to repeat the process, and districts would not have to spend money on what is essentially a duplicative process.
Physical restraint/mandatory training. Last year the state passed a law that strengthens limits on the use of restraint and seclusion within Connecticut schools. Included in the law’s fine print is a requirement for a plan to train all school professionals, paraprofessionals and administrators. Our problem with this is Wilton already has in place an effective process for training appropriate staff. It is simply not necessary to expand training beyond its current scope. Restraint training takes roughly 12 hours. Not only does the new law impose a significant cost to the district, but also staff members — who have very little chance of ever being placed in a situation that might necessitate such training — would be forced to spend time away from their responsibilities.
Student data privacy. The legislature passed a law intended to protect student confidential information by, among other things, restricting access to and use of student information by third-party contractors. While this is certainly an important goal, the law puts in place a bureaucracy and cumbersome compliance process that will impose significant costs on the district.
In raising these issues, I want to make clear that I understand and appreciate that each mandate reflects a good faith effort by members of the state legislature to be responsive to a particular concern. My point though, is the tendency of the legislature to enact remedies without thinking through the resulting administrative and financial burdens, or that not every district in Connecticut has the same needs. My sincere wish is for districts to be given some flexibility in developing solutions that meet their communities’ unique needs.
Finally, while I consider myself an ultimate fan of all Warrior sports, I want to give a shout out to girls ice hockey. Booster club president Rick Thomas paid a visit to our board meeting last week and issued an explicit invitation to board members — and all members of the community — to come out and cheer on the team. Girls ice hockey is Wilton High’s newest sport, and is actually a co-op team, comprised of players from Norwalk and Brien McMahon as well as Wilton. As Mr. Thomas noted, the team is highly motivated and tremendously supportive of one another and no doubt, excellent examples of our Warrior Pride. The team’s schedule can be found at I intend to make it to at least one game this season, and hope to see the stands full of Warrior fans.
Until then, my very best wishes to you and your family for a healthy and happy holiday season.