Bills update: Darien officials submit joint opposing testimony to fiscally independent district bill

On Friday, the state legislature’s Planning & Development Committee held 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.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson forwarded the below testimony that was submitted in opposition to the bill, signed by various elected town officials listed at the end:

Testimony in Opposition to


The undersigned town officials from Darien strongly oppose HB 7319, ‘An Act Concerning Fiscal Independence of School Districts,’ which has been referred to the Committee on Planning and Development.

Darien’s Town Charter provides a structure of government that controls the appropriation of funds and authorization of bonding for both town services and our school system. This structure includes a Board of Finance elected at large and a Representative Town Meeting elected by district both of which are independent of the boards responsible for the operation of town services and our schools. This structure adds extra oversight to spending and borrowing decisions, providing valuable checks and balances to the budget and appropriation process and has yielded a productive relationship among these entities, which improves decision-making and enhances taxpayer confidence.

HB 7319 changes this fundamentally. Under the bill, the Board of Education (BOE) assumes exclusive authority over its budget, with no independent oversight. In addition, the BOE takes on responsibilities that include capital spending and bonding as well as tax collection, again with no oversight or additional involvement from other elected town bodies. Residents would essentially face two separate governments, operating without the collaboration and shared expertise that has served Darien well up to this point.

In addition to divided government, this bill would drive duplication of roles and responsibilities at the BOE, which would be forced to retain separate personnel with expertise in capital spending, bonding and tax collection. BOE members would inevitably need to allocate time and resources away from educational initiatives in order to focus on financing, reporting, tax collection, accounting, maintenance of cash reserves and interaction with the credit rating agencies, all previously the purview of other town entities. What a waste!

Longer term, we see a bigger purpose behind this bill, which is to set the stage for consolidation of school taxing authority at a broader regional level or even the state level. Last time we checked, the real crisis in this state was unfunded retiree liabilities. HB 7319 does nothing to address these problems but instead creates new ones: fear, distrust, waste, inefficiency and the prospect of real damage to the top-performing school districts in Connecticut without any improvement to those districts that are underperforming. Worse still, our state’s relative attractiveness versus our neighbors will continue to decline, and we are likely to see an acceleration of the out-migration of key taxpayers to places like Florida.

In closing, HB 7319, in combination with the proposed regionalization bills (SB 454, 457, 738 and 874) threatens swift and unwelcome change to the representation that our taxpayers and residents enjoy under Darien’s Town Charter, increases the tax burden faced by our residents, distracts BOE focus away from education and radically compromises a system of government that has successfully provided quality town services and education to Darien’s children for decades.

We urge the committee, in the strongest possible terms, to reject HB 7319.

Respectfully submitted in their individual capacity,

Jayme J. Stevenson, Town of Darien, First Selectman

Susan J. Marks, Town of Darien, Board of Selectmen

Charles “Kip” Koons, Town of Darien, Board of Selectmen

Marc Thorne, Town of Darien, Board of Selectmen

Pamela Sparkman, Town of Darien, Board of Selectmen

Jon E. Zagrodzky, Chairman, Town of Darien, Board of Finance

Diana Q. Maguire, Town of Darien, Board of Finance

James R. Palen, Town of Darien, Board of Finance

Robert Cardone, Town of Darien, Board of Finance

John Sini, Chairman, Town of Darien, Planning & Zoning Commission

D. Jill McCammon, Town of Darien, Board of Education

Debra M. Ritchie, Town of Darien, Board of Education

Christa S. McNamara, Town of Darien, Board of Education

Frank Huck, Town of Darien, Board of Finance

Paul Hendrickson, Town of Darien, Board of Finance

Absent from the signers of the testimony was Board of Ed Chairman Tara Ochman. Ochman told The Darien Times Friday that her Board had discussed 7319, and "commented that it would most appropriate for the Board of Finance and/or the Representative Town Meeting, should they chose, to take the lead on this issue, as they  are the bodies whose influence and management authority are most negatively effected by this proposal."

"We committed to watching 7319 closely, but thought the BOE should keep its focus on bills related  to direct educational issues & outcomes  to our children  and families.

"We did also commit to having updates on all bills,  and reserved the right to re-examine the need to make a public statement on issues at any point," she said.

As far as the Board of Ed members who did sign the testimony, including Debra Ritchie, Christa McNamara and Jill McCammon, Ochman said those signatures represented their individual opinions and that they were not speaking on behalf of the Board of Ed by signing them. State Rep. Terrie Wood, who represents Darien and Rowayton, also gave testimony on Friday against bill 7319.

Ochman added that as chairman, her individual signature could appear to be speaking on behalf of the Board of Ed, which could be viewed as conflicting with the consensus agreed to by the board on Wednesday night.

Regionalization debate continues

Stevenson and Ochman, along with many other town officials, did provide written and in person testimony on the three state bills proposing the regionalization of schools.

Read Stevenson's testimony here. 

Watch Ochman's testimony here. 

Read all of The Darien Times' news reporting, editorials and letters on regionalization here. 

SB 457, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, a Democrat who represents Norwalk and Darien, 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.

SB 738, An Act Concerning the Creation of Regional School Districts, was introduced by Senate President pro Tempore Martin Looney, a Democrat, who represents Hamden, New Haven and North Haven.

A third bill was raised by Gov. Ned Lamont, SB 874: An Act Concerning Education Initiatives and Services in Connecticut. Read the bill here. The bill was introduced by Duff, Looney, State Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, a Democrat who represents Berlin and Southington and State Rep. Matt Ritter, a Democrat representing Hartford.

Despite the bill, Lamont told a group of Fairfield County town leaders last month he did not support forced regionalization and preferred to use a "carrot vs. stick" method of incentivizing it.

Pushback and 'fear mongering'

The regionalization bills have caused frustration and anger within Fairfield County and many other towns who object to what they view is the uncertainty about their districts' future. Some have also objected to criticisms and discussion at the regionalization hearing that seemed to address the lack of diversity and inequality of Connecticut's school districts vs. the stated purpose of the bill, which was cost efficiency. Some social media response and op/eds  on the bills and response have painted those opposed as consciously or unconsciously entitled and racist.

Editorial: What is the definition of prejudice?

A Facebook group, Hands Off our Schools, that began in Wilton to opposed the regionalization bills quickly spread to support and members from other towns in Fairfield County and the state. The group, which shares information, contact info, upcoming hearings and how to attend and/or participate as well as other bills that have been proposed, has grown to include nearly 10,000 members as of Saturday morning.

Some Darien Democrats on the local and state level, including Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, Sen. Carlo Leone, and State Rep. Matt Blumenthal, have advised that the bills are far from a done deal and advise those critical to wait and let the process play out. Some have also accused those who are opposed to the bills as "fear mongering" or spreading "half-truths."

However, at the Board of Finance's public hearing on the town and school budgets, during which regionalization and other proposed bills were raised as concerns, Darien's Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky gave the exact opposite advice.

“Everyone should get informed about these bills, contact their representatives, and speak up in Hartford and make your voice known,” he said.

In regard to others saying, “‘Don’t worry, let the process play out,’ I promise you that if you do that, by the time [all the conversations are over], it’s going to be too late to influence these decisions," Zagrodzky said.

Town conversations

State Rep. Matt Blumenthal and Sen. Carlo Leone have both held community conversations at the Darien Library. Both have explained that the bills are far from a done deal and much conversation needs to happen before anything is passed. State Rep. Terrie Wood, a Republican, who has been outspoken in her criticism of the bills, also held a community conversation in Darien on Thursday at the Darien Library.

Senator Majority Leader Bob Duff, who sponsored regionalization bill 457 and co-introduced the governor's regionalization bill, has held two community conversations in Norwalk to address constituents' questions and concerns. Duff, who represents both Norwalk and Darien, will be holding his first Darien community conversation since the bills were proposed on Monday from 7 to 8 p.m. at Darien Library,  joined by Sen. Carlo Leone.