Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Studies in Educational Administration: Town and District Systems of School Administration and Supervision in Connecticut

by William C. Prosser & Albert Clark Willson - 1910

In its earliest history, Connecticut was especially distinguished in public education. The first great concern of all the early settlements was to make whatever provision that seemed to be necessary for the religious life of the people and for the education of the young. While the original records of Hartford and of New Haven have disappeared, there is ample evidence that schools had been set up in those colonies prior to any law requiring them. And from those early days to the present, their growth and development in number, variety, and excellence has been one of the chief glories of the State.

In its earliest history, Connecticut was especially distinguished in public education. The first great concern of all the early settlements was to make whatever provision that seemed to be necessary for the religious life of the people and for the education of the young. While the original records of Hartford and of New Haven have disappeared, there is ample evidence that schools had been set up in those colonies prior to any law requiring them. And from those early days to the present, their growth and development in number, variety, and excellence has been one of the chief glories of the State.


The schools of Connecticut have been under the successive control of towns, ecclesiastical societies or parishes, school societies, and then towns again. These several phases of procedure were due to the exigencies of the times which produced them, and each in its turn has contributed more or less, as the case may be, to educational progress. From 1639 UP to 1712 the entire control of schools was in the hands of the various towns in which they were situated, and were managed as other town affairs were managed by the town meeting or by its delegated authorities. Laws passed by the General Assembly in 1712 and in 1717 placed parishes on nearly the same footing as the towns in the management of schools. The parishes retained control until 1798 when they were superseded by school societies, which managed the schools until 1856. It was during this period that school districts rapidly multiplied throughout the State, and that the work of the schools reached its low-water mark. In 1856 the powers and duties belonging to the societies were transferred back again to the towns where they had been originally. The powers of the towns had been weakened by the fact that the districts had, in the meantime, acquired many of the privileges formerly belonging to them, the possession of which gave them a large measure of independence. The next step in the evolution of the school system of the State was the passing of a permissive consolidation law in 1866 which made it possible for towns to abolish their school districts. Prior to 1909, ninety-one towns had taken advantage of that law. The most recent legislation on school matters is the law passed in 1909 which made it mandatory upon all the towns in the State, except those that contain a city or borough form of government or that operate their schools under special charters, to abolish their school districts, and to place the whole management of schools in the hands of a town board.

While the intent of the law is good, it is defective in several particulars. Unlike a penal statute, it nowheres provides for its own enforcement. The State does not attempt to exercise any jurisdiction in the matter, leaving it entirely to local authorities who are in a position to evade its requirements for a time at least. I understand that this law is being disregarded in certain of its particulars, by several towns. It is further defective in that it does not specifically supersede another law on the same subject, from which it differs in several particulars. But in spite of its minor defects, this law marks a new era in the development of school management in Connecticut, and will, without doubt, find its best expression and its justification in more efficient work on the part of the teaching body of the State.


The Town. As at present administered, the local units of school administration are the town and the district, known respectively as town management and district management. In towns under town management the entire control of schools is centralized in one town school committee, elected as other town officers are elected and usually representing the town at large. This committee may consist of three, six, nine, or twelve members as may be determined by the selectmen. If the number is three, they are elected annually at the annual town meeting. If the number is six, nine, or twelve, they are divided into three equal classes each of which serves three years, and one of which must therefore be elected each year. The principle of minority representation requires that no person shall vote for more than a bare majority of the number to be elected. No one is disqualified by reason of sex, either in respect to this committee or in respect to the board of visitors or district committees referred to below. Everything relating to the management and supervision of schools is in the hands of this town committee.

Practically all the towns under town management, except those affected by the consolidation law of 1909, are supervised by superintendents who are appointed, in most instances, by the local boards. In such towns any person can hold the office provided he can get the appointment; there are no legal requirements that govern his selection. His duties require him to visit each school at least twice each term, "at which visits the schoolhouse and outbuildings, school register, and library shall be examined, and the studies, discipline, mode of teaching, and general condition of the school investigated." These are the duties legally devolving upon him but it is quite unlikely that any superintendent in the State is limited in his activities by this prescription. Each local board is free to make such other requirements of its superintendent as may be desirable. School superintendents in Connecticut probably have greater freedom in the administration of their office than those of almost any other state. The salaries of superintendents in the class of towns I am discussing are fixed by the boards that employ them, and, on the whole, are probably somewhat larger than in similar towns in other states.

The District. In towns under district management, the control of schools is divided between local district committees and a town board of school visitors. The district committees have charge of the school property and hire the teachers, whose salaries are paid by the town as authorized by the board. The board has charge of the supervision of the schools and determines the qualifications of the teachers, but it rarely rejects a teacher selected by the committee. It is this dual control that constitutes the chief objection to the district system.

According to the district form of organization, the town is divided into a number of school districts, some towns having as few as six, and others as many as twenty. They are irregular in outline, unequal in area, and frequently quite unlike in the size and character of their population. Under the town system all district lines are obliterated and a single district, which is the town itself, takes the place of the districts that formerly composed it.

School districts elect annually the following officers: committee clerk, treasurer, and collector. There is one town in the State having twenty school districts with a total of ninety-seven school offices and there is no legal reason why that number of men should not fill them. But since in several instances, the same person holds more than one office, the number of different people having to do with the schools in that town is reduced to seventy-seven. When a town consolidates its schools, all these offices, including the office of school visitor, are abolished, and the duties formerly belonging to them are transferred to the town school committee referred to above.

Under the district system there are apt to be as many different rates of taxation in a town as there are districts, each being free to fix its tax rate as may seem desirable. The money required for school purposes comes mainly from two sources. At a stated time in the year the board of school visitors and the selectmen hold a joint meeting when an estimate is made of the money which will be required to run the schools for the ensuing year. This estimate forms a part of the estimate of the regular town expenses for the next year, for the raising of which a tax is laid at the annual town meeting. The board determines just how much of the town funds each district may have, and specifies how it is to be applied. Some districts, however, occasionally have certain expenses other than those which are provided for in this way, so that it is necessary for them to lay an additional district tax, by which means large amounts are raised. The town tax bears on all parts of the town equally, but is not infrequently administered on a very different basis in different parts of a town; whereas the district tax is fixed in accordance with local needs or abilities, and is applied to school purposes within the district. It so happens, therefore, that tax-payers sometimes have two school taxes to pay, a town tax and a district tax. These differences in school expenditures that exist among the districts of a district-managed town must necessarily mean that the school children of the town are not receiving equal school advantages. It is, therefore, an unfair and undemocratic arrangement. It might seem that, since consolidation would tend to equalize school expenditures in all parts of the town, the schools would thereby be reduced to the same rank, and it would probably tend that way; but the rank would be that of the best schools. The whole history of the consolidation movement in Connecticut shows it to be a leveling-up process.

In addition to the local revenues mentioned above, towns may receive, subject to certain conditions, the following State grants:

1. An enumeration grant of $2.25 for every child between four and sixteen years of age enumerated.

2. Towns not maintaining a high school may send students to a non-local high school, the State paying two thirds of the cost of tuition, provided it does not exceed $30 per student. The State also pays one half the cost of conveyance of such students, not to exceed $20 each.

3. There is a State Library grant of $10 to every district and town maintaining a high school, to supplement local appropriations of an equal amount. On the same conditions, each district is allowed $5 annually for each 100 children, or fraction thereof, enrolled.

4. Towns having a Grant List of less than $1,000,000 are assumed to be too poor to pay adequate teachers' salaries. The State, therefore, gives to these towns an average Attendance Grant which makes it possible for them to spend for school purposes $25 per pupil in average attendance, provided such towns lay at least a four mill tax. This grant is taken advantage of by about one fourth of the towns in the State.

Under the district system there is usually one small ungraded school in each district, numbering from six to forty children, with the average nearer six than forty. Not very many years ago the reverse was true. In recent years there has been a very noticeable exodus from the farms and small villages to the cities in some parts of Connecticut, especially in the western and southern parts, due largely to the fact that the farms are being bought up by wealthy outsiders to be used as summer homes. Ten years ago, the writer taught a country village school which had at that time more than forty pupils, and which has a present registration of less than ten. Such depletion makes it poor business to continue the small country school. The best thing to do in such cases is to combine two or three or more of them into one large graded school. It is better to do this anyway than to continue the one-teacher school, ungraded, with four-year-olds to eighteen-year-olds, twenty or more classes per day, and six minutes to the recitation. A change from district to town system is apt to mean the consolidation of these weak rural schools.

Transportation usually accompanies consolidation and where employed assures a better attendance, conduces to the health of the children, and is a distinct aid to the corporate life of the school. Last year 81 towns in Connecticut transported children to and from school at an expense of $31,411.56; 1,571 children were transported and 45 schools were discontinued. In practically every instance parents have expressed their entire satisfaction with the plan, and school officers report that it has been beneficial to the schools.


There has never been to my knowledge any question as to the superiority of the town to the district system from the point of view of better school work. So far as we can get at general efficiency statistically it may be found indicated in: qualifications required in teachers, salaries paid, high-school facilities, length of school year, course of study pursued, and method of supervision. The State reports show that teachers under the district system are on the whole of inferior qualifications, that they receive lower salaries, and that they teach for a shorter school year than in the towns under the town system from which facts it may fairly be assumed that the work of their schools is poorer. The reports also show that high schools are much more numerous in town-managed schools than in the others, and since consolidated towns more frequently employ supervisors, it is fair to assume that their courses of study are superior and that the teaching is better than in the district-managed towns. There are, of course, here and there in the State, district schools that are doing really high grade work, but these are the exceptions. Good schools can be had under the district system but influences are all against their development, and commonly prevent it.

The results in respect to economy of operation are more easily determined. I have prepared statistical tables of the 56 towns that consolidated their schools between 1890 and 1901, for the purpose of determining the comparative cost of the two units. A part of this report is given on the following page. Five classes of facts (given with the table) were averaged and compared over a period of 12 years in connection with each town. The averages of a six-year period prior to consolidation are contrasted with a similar period following it. Such comparison shows the following results on the basis of the per capita cost in respect to average attendance:

In 14 towns the per capita cost was less after consolidation

 “    8    “       “    increased per capita cost was less than $1

 “  10    “        “           “         “        “        “      “    between $1 and $2

 “  11    “        “           “         “        “        “      “          “        $2   “   $3

 “    6    “        “           “         “        “        “      “          “        $3   “   $4

 “    7    “        “           “         “        “        “      “          “        $4   “   $9

Thus in 32 of the 56 towns mentioned the cost of operation was either less after consolidation than it was before, or else the increase was so small as to be negligible. The increases noted in the others may all be easily explained by reference to the table which shows what these increases were for. From the above examination it may fairly be concluded that town management is not only more efficient than district management, from the point of view of school work, but that it is also more economical from the point of view of actual cost. A comparison of the per capita cost in the State and in towns under town management shows that the average in the State is usually greater, due to the inclusion of the district-managed towns. It should be noted that when a town changes from district to town control, the total school expenditures are increased by the inclusion of district expenses which did not formerly appear, in that category. There is no way of determining the actual cost of running the schools under the district system.



While the above data are for certain reasons unsatisfactory, they give practically all the information available on the subject of inquiry, and can be no more accurate than the State reports from which they are taken.

When it is proposed in a district-managed town to adopt town management, the objection commonly raised is that those districts that may happen to be free of debt, will have to help pay the debts of other districts that are not so fortunate. This objection has prevented consolidation in a number of instances. For the proposition is that the town shall buy the property of the districts and at the same time assume their debts. Sec. 180, Chap. 13 of the school laws indicates how the financial matters in such cases may be fairly adjusted as illustrated below.



Number 1

     “        3

     “        4

     “        5

     “        5

     “        6

     “        7

     “        8

     “        9

     “       10






































































Explanation of the table:

The town used for illustration contains ten school districts, whose individual grant lists are given in column 1, that of the town being their sum, $9,000,000. Since the town is to buy the property of the districts and assume their debts it is first necessary to ascertain the value of their properties and the amounts of their debts. The appraised values and estimated debts of the respective districts are shown together in column 2. The difference between the appraised value of the districts and their debts gives their net value as shown in column 3, the total net value being $462,000, which is to be raised on the grant list of the town. The rate therefore, would be .0525 *($462,000 ÷ $9,000,000), that is, in theory. The next step is to credit each district with the net value of its school property which is done by finding the ratio between its net value and its grant list. These ratios appear in column 4, and the balance due the town or district as the case may be are given in column 5. The plus sign shows that such rate is to be added to the regular town tax of such district, and the minus sign that it is to be subtracted from the town tax. This scheme would work out for this town as follows:

                         District No. 1 owes the town .0030 of $1,000,000 = $3,000

The town owes       “      “    2                         .0051 “     1,500,000 =   6,630

                               “       “    3     “      “      “    .0009 “        300,000 =      270

                               “       “    4     “      “      “    .0004 “     3,000,000 =   1,200

                               “       “    5     “      “      “    .0034 “        600,000 =   2,040

                               “       “    7     “      “      “    .0050 “          40,000 =      200

                               “       “    8     “      “      “    .0015 “        100,000 =      150

The town owes       “       “    9                        .0058 “          60,000 =      328

                               “       “   10    “      “      “    .0013 “        400,000 =      520

The adjustment assessments shown in the last column may be raised by a direct tax and paid off immediately or they may be paid in installments over a period of five years; or they may be adjusted in any other manner agreed upon by the parties in interest. Districts 2 and 9 are creditors of the town to the amounts noted, which should be deducted from their regular town tax. District No. 6 is both debited and credited with .0525, hence its account with the town is square.

The fact that some districts have their taxes remitted wholly or in part is apt to give rise to more or less unfavorable criticism. Such a condition is due to the high ratios of net school property to grant lists of such districts and probably means that they have conducted their financial affairs economically and efficiently. Such a method of adjustment gives every dollar's worth of property in the town equal share and interest in all school property and in all matters relating to the schools. A few school districts have secured special charters, and so operate their schools independently of the towns in which they are situated.


Prior to 1714 the supervision of schools was in the hands of the selectmen and the ministers, but in this year the "civil authority and the selectmen" were directed by law to visit each school at stated intervals, to inquire into the qualifications and effectiveness of the masters and the proficiency of the school children. They were also directed to see that all school funds were properly expended.

The office of school visitor, which still exists in towns under district management, was created in 1799 in the following law: "That each School Society shall appoint a suitable number of persons, not exceeding Nine, of competent skill in Letters, to be Overseers or Visitors of all schools in such Society, whose duty it shall be, in any of their meetings, to examine the Instructors, and to displace such as may be found deficient in any requisite qualification, or who will not conform to the regulations by them adopted." The present duties include besides those mentioned above, such other duties as; "the management, classification, and discipline of the public schools"; the formulation of courses of study; and the selection of text-books, and, in fact, all other matters relating to school control and supervision except the employment of teachers and the care of school buildings.

In 1856 a law was passed requiring boards of school visitors to divide themselves into three equal classes, one-third of the whole number to be chosen each year for the term of three years. They must appoint one or more of their number "Acting Visitors," who are to perform the duties mentioned above in connection with the office of superintendent of schools, and who receive "two dollars a day each while actually employed." They are expected "to visit each school at least twice each term, spending one-half day at each visit," but I doubt that any in the State do. The board of visitors, or a committee by it appointed, " examines all persons desiring to teach in the public schools; and gives to those with whose moral character and ability they are satisfied, if found qualified to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, and grammar, the rudiments of geography and history, and the rudiments of drawing, if required, a certificate authorizing the holder to teach in any public school in the town or district so long as desired." They may revoke such certificate for cause.

There was no semblance of State supervision of the public schools prior to 1839 when a board of commissioners of common schools was created consisting of one member from each county to be appointed by the Governor, and the School Fund Commissioner and Governor, ex officio. The secretary appointed by this board was, by virtue of that fact, the first superintendent of schools in Connecticut. This board was abolished in 1842 and in 1845 the Commissioner of the School Fund was appointed superintendent, holding the office until 1849 when the principal of the State Normal School succeeded him. The State Board of Education was not established until 1865. The secretary of the State Board, who was formerly an ex officio member of it, was this year taken out of that relation, being now secretary to the Board, but is not a member of it and has no voice in its deliberations. He is in fact, if not in name, State Superintendent of Public Schools.

The State Board consists of seven members all of whom, except the two ex officio members, the Governor and the Lieutenant-Governor, are appointed by the General Assembly and the Governor. The principal duties of the Board are as follows: To have general supervision and control of the educational interests of the State; to hold teachers meetings at various times and places; to submit to the Governor every year a report dealing in detail with the condition of the schools of the State; to see that periodic eye-sight tests are made; to enforce the Child Labor and Compulsory Attendance laws, for which purpose it may appoint special agents; to maintain normal schools; to collect and compile reports from the towns of the State. It may conduct teachers examinations and grant certificates to teach.

Of the fourteen cities of the State, three operate their schools under special charters, four are under district management and are supervised by superintendents appointed by boards of visitors, or by supervising-principals appointed by district committees, and six are under town management and are supervised by superintendents appointed by boards of education. There are also a number of large towns, all of which with one exception, are under some form of expert supervision.

Following the lead of Massachusetts, a number of supervision districts have been organized in Connecticut. Such districts are composed of two or more towns which may or may not be near together, uniting for the purpose of employing a superintendent of schools and sharing in his services; seventeen towns are included in eight such districts. The State pays one-half the salary of these superintendents up to $800, the balance being provided by the towns composing such districts. In order to be entitled to this State grant these towns must together employ from thirty to fifty teachers. The affairs of the joint district, such as the selection of a superintendent, are in the hands of a committee composed of one member from among the school officials of the towns forming such a union. Any single town employing more than twenty and less than thirty teachers may employ a superintendent and fix his salary, of which the State pays one-half up to $800 the rest being paid by the town. Towns having less than twenty teachers may apply to the State Board for a supervisor who may be appointed by it to discharge the duties of superintendent, whose salary is fixed by the State. "No person shall be eligible for appointment who has not had at least five years' successful experience as a teacher or superintendent, or who does not hold a certificate of approval from the State Board of Education." These are the qualifications also demanded of the superintendent of supervision districts. By virtue of this permissive law, 41 towns are being supervised by 23 agents appointed by the State Board and working under its direction.

A very serious defect in this plan of school supervision is found in the fact that supervisors have to work with teachers whom they can have no share in appointing, for school committees are ordinarily reluctant to delegate this authority to them. And yet it is the pivotal point in the success of the plan. It is further defective in that it provides for extensive, rather than intensive, supervision. While this arrangement is without doubt much superior to supervision by Boards of School Visitors, it falls far short of the kind of supervision usually found in graded schools under supervising principals. To make the plan a success there must be cutting down of the various supervision areas and the limiting of the number of teachers under one supervisor to not more than twenty.

The brief historical resume as given at the beginning of this article, indicates how completely educational legislation in the past has placed the control of schools in the hands of local authorities. The evil effects of this decentralizing tendency are everywhere apparent in the State. Rural schools suffer from incompetent local management, and the large well-organized school systems suffer from the kind of help and stimulus that the State alone is in a position to confer. What is needed in Connecticut is such a readjustment of jurisdiction in school administration as will centralize the direction of schools in the State Board. Where it can now merely suggest and advise in such matters as the employment of teachers of specified qualifications, course of study, supervision, etc., it should have original jurisdiction and the power of compulsion within limits to be exercised either directly or through local boards of education. The State Board does not and cannot, under present laws, exercise a proper directive control over the educational interests of the State.

There is one matter connected with local management of schools in Connecticut that may be noted in closing. While there is undoubtedly much incompetence on the part of school committees and school boards, in the management of schools, it is also undoubtedly true that school officials both in small towns and in large cities are sincere and honest men, against whom, as a class, the charge of crooked work which is found in many school systems, has never to my knowledge been brought. Religious differences and petty politics do influence the course of school procedure sometimes, but graft—never. Connecticut is stainless in this respect.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 11 Number 5, 1910, p. 55-69
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10090, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 8:59:30 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • William Prosser

  • Albert Willson

Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue