Proposed state bill would create independent school taxing districts

If you think three recent state bills that would greatly impact Connecticut schools is more than enough for residents to grapple with this year, wait, there’s more.

On Friday, March 15, commonly known as the Ides of March, the state legislature’s Planning & Development Committee will hold a public hearing on House Bill 7319, An Act Concerning The Fiscal Independence Of School Districts.

The bill requires local and regional school districts with fewer than 15,000 students to become taxing authorities, separate from any municipality.

The bill was introduced by the Planning & Development Committee and is applicable to Darien and all local and regional school districts in the state, except for five: Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Waterbury and Stamford.

For Darien, it would mean the town could no longer assess or collect taxes for the purpose of providing educational services. The school taxing district would have its own assessors and collectors.

In an email, First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said: “This bill, in conjunction with the other school regionalism bills, is laying the foundation for school districts to operate on a regionally independent basis from municipalities, removing any local accountability for the provision of educational services and budgeting.”

“It is noteworthy that CT’s cities, where student outcomes tend to be the worst, are not included in any of these pieces of legislation,” she said.

Among the impacts of this bill, Stevenson listed: towns would no longer have the power to tax and appropriate monies for educational services; boards of education would prepare tax billings; boards of eduction and their treasurer could lien property for non-payment of school taxes; local boards of finance would no longer have oversight of education budgets; and appropriations and bonding would no longer be approved by the town’s Representative Town Meeting.

In addition, the Board of Finance would no longer have oversight over ESTD budgets, capital spending, assessments or bonding. Should schools be regionalized, Stevenson said it would be the new regional district that would tax and bond or educational services.

Darien’s Board of Finance Jon Zagrodzky said the proposed bill “will significantly change local Darien government.”

“This legislation as currently envisioned separates all education operating and capital spending from the town, with no checks and balances from the Board of Finance or RTM. It also empowers the Board of Education to borrow money under its own authority, again with no separate oversight,” Zagrodzy said.

“This change will meaningfully divide local government, eliminating the basis for cooperation and collaboration that has been so valuable for Darien over many years,” he said.

Further concerning, Zagrodzky said, is “this separation sets this stage for significant future changes.”

“It will be much easier to consolidate separate taxing districts at a regional or a state level. Such consolidation has the potential to affect local levels of taxation dramatically, as well as the educational services we have come to expect,” he said.

Zagrodzky said he urges everyone to become familiar with this proposed legislation and to take action immediately.

“Do not listen to those encouraging you to relax and let the process play out. Once it does, it will be too late to influence the outcome. Speak up now, and loudly,” he said. Zagrodzky said he is happy to help represent any group opposed to this bill and said anyone interested should contact him.

Board of Education Chairman Tara Ochman said the bill was just recently raised and “We are watching this bill as it represent a significant change in the responsibilities of the Board of Education.” Ochman said the board planned to discuss at their Wednesday night meeting after press time.

This is the latest in a series of bills in this legislative session proposing some major changes to local control over school districts by towns.

On Saturday, Sen. Carlo Leone visited the Darien Library and talked with residents about proposed school regionalization bills and tolls. Some parents asked questions about the timing of said bills should they be passed.

While Leone said the point of the bills was to introduce discussion, and reinforced the purpose was to create cost efficiencies, he stopped short of saying he would not support any regionalization efforts. He did say any vote to pass any sort of regionalization in Connecticut schools would require much further discussion and detailed implementation efforts and timing.

He also encouraged Darien residents and officials to let him know what current consolidated services and efforts the town was already making with neighbors.

Additional reporting by Wilton Bulletin assistant editor Patricia Gay.