Hands Off Our Schools rally draws big crowd to Ridgefield

Caroline Unger of Wilton holds up a sign protesting state Sen. Martin Looney’s proposed regionalization bill. — Peter Yankowski/Hearst Connecticut Media
With the sounds of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take it” echoing through the village, townspeople, town leaders, and legislators led a rally opposing school regionalization on the steps of Ridgefield’s Town Hall Saturday, Feb. 23.

Around 200 people stood on the sidewalks of Main Street, many of them holding up signs in the air protesting the proposed change.

“Moved here for the schools, Stay here for the schools, Hands Off Our Schools” read a sign held by Wilton resident Caroline Unger.

“Let’s ensure that Governor Lamont is fully aware of the statewide, crosstown opposition” to regionalization,” said Ridgefielder Liz Floegel, one of the organizers of the rally. “The bills being discussed will negatively impact our educational quality. They will force our kids into large, bureaucratic districts. They will be difficult to manage, and not one of these bills has any metric of school quality improvement in it.”

Several people passing by on the street and sidewalk gave a thumbs up or honked to show their support for the protestors.

Tammy Ward, a Wilton organizer for Hands Off Our Schools, took down names of people interested in taking a bus to Hartford on March 1 to testify against one of the proposals.

Bills

There are currently three bills before the state legislature that include language that would regionalize school districts. Senate Bill 738, introduced by Senator Martin Looney (D-11), the president pro tempore of the senate, would create a commission to combine the central offices — but not the schools themselves — of any town with a population of less than 40,000.

A second bill, SB 457, introduced by state Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, would combine school districts with less than 2,000 students.

The third bill, Governor’s Bill 874, was introduced by Gov. Ned Lamont this week as part of his budget plan.

Of the four state legislators who spoke — state Rep. John Frey (R-Ridgefield), state Senator Will Haskell, (D-26), state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-Wilton), and state Rep. Kenneth Gucker (D-Ridgefield) — all said they were opposed to forced regionalization.

State Sen. Will Haskell speaks during the Hands Off Our Schools rally in Ridgefield Saturday, Feb. 23. — Peter Yankowski/Hearst Connecticut Media

Haskell

Haskell, who took a moment to recognize his Republican predecessor in the state senate, Toni Boucher, said he would oppose any bill that includes forced regionalization.

“I think it’s time in Connecticut that we bring every district up to the level of exceptional schools that we provide here in Ridgefield, here in Wilton, here in Westport,” Haskell said.

Haskell was later asked point-blank by a member of the audience whether he opposed all three bills.

“I will oppose any bill that includes forced regionalization,” he told the crowd, without specifying if that includes Gov. Lamont’s proposal.

Asked after the rally if he was opposed to all three bills by The Ridgefield Press, Haskell said he still has to read the full text of the governor’s proposal.

“If it leaves the door open to forced regionalization, I’m not going to support it,” he said. “But there are towns out there that operate inefficiently, and Fairfield County taxpayers are being asked to pick up the funding …

“One out of every 10 income tax dollars comes from a district that I represent … not to pick on one, but Sterling, Connecticut, has around 400 students and they get around $3 million in ECS funding every single year,” Haskell said, referring to the Educational Cost Sharing grant, one of the main drivers of school funding aid provided by the state government.

Editorial: What sticks

Frey

Frey, the first legislator to speak at the rally, was adamant in his opposition to all three proposals.

A realtor in Ridgefield, he told those gathered someone backed out of a real estate deal over the prospect of school regionalization.

“My concern is this — these bills are not [dead on arrival], this year,” said Frey. “A couple of things could happen. One of them could pass. I would say the one that governor introduced has got the most meat to it, it’s a 42-page bill.”

He said one of the bills could become a “study bill,” which keeps the bill alive for another year while the details are fleshed out. Ridgefield state representative also feared that one of the proposals could become a pilot program that would be tested in some school districts.

He reiterated that he was opposed to all three bills.

“No, and hell no,” he said. “I’m not going to vote for any of these three bills.”

‘Lunch for three days’

Lavielle, who sits on the education committee of the general assembly, said the governor’s proposal would “create a commission of people who were not elected by anybody” to find efficiencies in the state’s school systems.

“Every town is affected,” Lavielle added, noting that there is “not a word in any of the three bills about improving the quality of schools.”

Gucker, who represents Ridgefield’s 138th district and parts of Danbury, said he couldn’t imagine a student being bused from a small town to go to a larger regional school.

He said the change could mean more time spent on a bus.

“If you hit Waterbury at the wrong time, you have to pack lunch for three days,” he said.

Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi speaks during the Hands Off Our Schools rally in front of Town Hall Saturday, Feb. 23. — Peter Yankowski/Hearst Connecticut Media

The driver

Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi said all the representatives from the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST), which includes 110 communities, would “vehemently oppose all three bills.”

“We’re proud of our schools, it’s the engine that drives our town,” Marconi said.

Dick Moccia, a member of the Ridgefield Board of Finance and former Mayor of Norwalk, was the final official who spoke.

“There is a regional district, Amity High School, which has three towns: Woodbridge, Orange, and Bethany,” Moccia said. “For that town, they have four superintendents — one for each town and one for the high school.”