Editorial: Rethinking State Mandates

Editorial: Rethinking State Mandates

During a recent budget review session, Cheshire School District Chief Operating Officer Vincent Masciana displayed a few slides to members of the Board of Education.

On the slides were listings of state mandates — all of the things the District must do to be in compliance with the myriad of state requirements dealing with education. And, as Masciana explained, most of the mandates are “unfunded,” meaning that the state issues the order but doesn’t provide the additional monies necessary to ensure the mandates become a reality.

This has been a frustration of local school boards for years. Whether the mandates coming from the state are viewed as positive or not, almost all require some expense to implement, and if the money isn’t coming from Hartford, it’s got to come directly from municipalities. And if a town is dedicated to keeping its overall mill rate manageable, it most often means that a school board must do a little robbing of Peter to pay Paul.

This was a topic of conversation recently when two state legislators, State Senator Rob Sampson (R-16) and State Representative Lezyle Zupkus (R-89), attended a meeting of the Cheshire Board of Education to talk about how what happens in Hartford impacts the decisions being made “downstream.” The message seemed to be clear: In addition to money, Cheshire officials are looking for more direct communication and cooperation with Hartford.

That seems to have been an issue with the recent “Right to Read” state mandate. Connecticut will be requiring districts to implement the new initiative, but as Cheshire officials have pointed out, their current models are working to produce higher-than-average results when it comes to student reading proficiency and there is considerable concern that the new mandates won’t just cost more money, but won’t ultimately work as well.

It’s one of the problems with top-down control of something as important as education. Cheshire’s approach may be different from the approach taken by a neighboring town, but if both are showing results then they should either be tweaked within the framework that is proving to be successful, or left alone. If nothing else, no bill should be passed before all stakeholders are consulted.

Perhaps a potential fix would be to require that any new state mandate come with full funding directly from Hartford. If lawmakers were required to attach funding to each requirement, they may think twice before approving a new initiative. At minimum, they’d likely be more inclined to do their due diligence before enacting an important mandate, such as “Right to Read.”

If each mandate had to come with a state cost, it would either force state lawmakers to make cuts in other areas of the budget or raise taxes, putting their own political fortunes at risk. The goal would not be to eliminate state mandates altogether, as some things should be required of all school districts. The purpose would be to hopefully have only the most important initiatives mandated by Hartford, and only after the majority of local officials have had their say on how the program could work best.

Education is a difficult endeavor at the moment. There are staffing shortages with which to contend, rising costs to cover, and a student population trying to catch up on learning after two-plus years of COVID-19 restrictions and interruptions. On top of that, the national economy remains a concern, making large budget increases to cover new costs difficult.

In this environment, there needs to be more conversations and more cooperation between Hartford and local municipalities. Before any new burden is placed on the shoulders of a local school district, it should have the buy-in of those closest to what’s happening on the ground. The work of school administrators is difficult at the moment, and state officials should be searching for ways to make that work easier, not harder.


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