A heavy, somber tone could be felt in the air throughout the entire evening at the Community Conversation with State Rep. Terrie Wood, at the Darien Library on Thursday, March 14.
Wood, a Republican who represents the 141st District, which includes Rowayton and part of Darien, spoke about current topics in the news, such as school regionalization. She also shared her opinion and answered questions regarding the audience’s extreme dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs in Connecticut.
About 50 people came to the event, including First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky, and Board of Education Chairman Tara Ochman.
Early on in the conversation, Wood said the biggest need right now is to “improve our economic standing in the country. Without growing the economy, we cannot recover from the recession. We cannot tax our way to prosperity.”
Wood brought up Bill SB 457, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, which proposes to amend state statutes to require any school district with a student population of fewer than 2,000 students to join a new or an existing regional school district.
Wood said this bill “makes some sense because they do need to consolidate. They do need to look at creating efficiencies.”
However, there are “fixes” out there that can save money, she said, “other than the big hand of regionalization.”
She further said there is a “significant question” on the financial advantages of regionalization.
“The biggest controversy with these regionalization bills is that there were no metrics or no mention of student accountability —or anything improving academic outcomes,” Wood said.
Some of the solutions Wood suggested for savings are magnet schools and charter schools, which “give great opportunities to kids in the urban districts. They improve the outcomes, and we need to continue to support that.”
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said if the state is really interested in supporting better outcomes for students in underperforming districts, “certainly, school choice should be on the table for discussion. Governor Lamont’s [proposed school district regionalization] bill, to my understanding, showed a disinvestment in charter and magnet schools. That is very disappointing for me to see.”
Wood said “school choice is competition and we need to have more competition in our educational choices.”
In response to the question by an audience member on if there are any states that have a regionalized school system “that actually works?,” without hesitation, Wood said, “No,” which produced chuckles from the audience.
Wood talked about teacher pensions being pushed to the municipalities. “This would be phased in over four years,” she said. “Right now, teacher pensions are negotiated and paid for at the state level. and this would be bringing it back to the municipalities. So for Darien, we would be expected to contribute more on the pensions.”
Gov. Ned Lamont
Wood said Gov. Ned Lamont is doing a good job.
“He brings a temperament to the job. He’s positive,” she said. “He has put some very good people around the table and I think he’s coming at this with the right attitude.”
Wood also said Lamont is “willing to listen, and that’s a change from the last eight years.”
In his budget proposal, Lamont has put Connecticut “on a debt diet. So, we’re not going to be borrowing nearly as much as we have in the last eight years,” Wood said.
After Wood spoke, many people expressed their dissatisfaction with the overall state of affairs in Connecticut.
One man said, “There is nothing you said tonight that makes me as a resident of Connecticut want to even stay in the state, let alone operate my business in the state.”
He continued, “We have certain fundamental costs that are driving our budget, and it’s like a cancer. They have to be addressed and we’re not doing it. We’re talking all around it. We’re talking about everything we can do to raise money but we’re not talking about what we can do to reduce those fundamental costs and other costs.”
He added that it’s becoming “impossible and unbearable to live here. We’re going in the wrong direction. Does anyone take the time, look in the rearview mirror and say, ‘How do we fix it?’ We can’t tax our way out of this mess anymore, and that’s what we’re doing now.”
In response, the audience clapped loudly.
A woman in the audience said the legislators that are managing the state are doing so “very poorly.”
She added that the fact that they have the “audacity to try and take control of our school systems that are working well — that will drive out all families that are here, and the businesses will follow.”
Another person had a complaint about Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, a Democrat who represents Norwalk and part of Darien. He said that after doing some research, he discovered that Duff’s information on school regionalization facts was “incorrect.”
In response to this, another audience member grumbled that this is “no surprise.”
In response to the complaints, Wood asked the audience members if they have written to their state senator or state representative about their concerns.
A handful of people said yes, they had, “but got no response.”
Wood said that the governor’s proposed two-year budget is about $21 billion for fiscal year 2019-20, a 1.7% increase over 2018-19, and a budget of slightly more for 2020-21, a 3.4% increase.
She encouraged everyone to continue to speak out to get their voices heard.
“Everything right now through the beginning of May are proposals,” Wood said. “We are looking for feedback from you all. None are set in stone.”