Connecticut making progress on road to regionalism

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Connecticut is known as the land of steady habits. Who would have thought that “regionalism” would be a popular buzzword as we begin the 2016-2017 legislative session, set to start on Feb. 3?

The time to discuss the idea that school districts and municipalities can and should work together to find efficiencies as a way to reduce costs and offer more quality services has finally arrived. This session, be on the lookout for the introduction of multiple bills that would both remove barriers for inter-town collaboration and incentivize towns and schools to work together.

Maybe it’s because of the gloomy forecast that Connecticut’s budget has a hole of more than $500 million in 2016-2017 and faces a larger gap of more than $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2017-2018. Maybe it’s because Connecticut continues to see more and more of its young adults leaving the state for urban pastures, or maybe folks have come to realize that Connecticut — only slightly larger than the city of Chicago and much smaller than Los Angeles — can no longer continue to sustain 169 different ways of doing the same thing.

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey – a long-time proponent of regional cooperation—has pushed for voluntary cooperation for the past six years through his work on the Municipal Opportunities for Regional Efficiencies (MORE) Commission.  This year, he is getting some help from school and town officials, business leaders, and advocates.

It seems that the stars are now aligned to move the regionalism agenda forward. More than ever, support is popping up from many new partners.

In its December report, “Regional Cooperation Between Local Boards of Education,” the state legislature’s own Program Review and Investigations Committee identified opportunities for regional collaboration in the areas of special education, training, transportation, and food service operations.

The Connecticut Association of School Business Officials (CASBO), in its recent white paper on shared services, identified areas of potential cooperation that ranged from shared staffing to insurance purchases. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities also recently brought together local, state, and business leaders for a two-day summit that focused on how the state can reduce costs in non-educational areas in order to find the money necessary for other important statewide needs, such as education, transportation, and retaining jobs in our state.

And tomorrow, Undersecretary of the state Office of Policy and Management, Scott Jackson, will convene the first-ever meeting of Connecticut’s six Regional Educational Service Centers (RESCs) leaders and the nine leaders of the Councils of Government (COGs). What is significant is the role that the two sets of organizations play as the only statewide municipal regional structures that exist in a state without county government. Once the leaders are introduced, the job of working together can begin. The MORE Commission Education Subcommittee has identified RESCs and COGs as “the building blocks for regionalism in Connecticut.”

Getting together may be one small step, but it’s a giant leap for regionalism in Connecticut.

Mary Glassman is manager of CREC’s Office for Regional Efficiencies, an office that helps towns and schools form intra-town and inter-town municipal shared services. She is the former first selectwoman of Simsbury. CREC, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, and the Connecticut Association of School Business Officials will hold a Twitter chat about regionalism on Feb. 1 at 12:30 p.m. To participate, follow #CRECchat.

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