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
HB 7319: AN ACT CONCERNING FISCAL INDEPENDENCE OF SCHOOL DISTRICTS
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."
Regionalization debate continues
Pushback and 'fear mongering'
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.
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.