This January’s legislative session has kicked off with a variety of bills that have concerned residents and some town and state officials — in their sheer number, ambiguous content and the inferred intent that the state is attempting take away local control.

The bills

Two bills, Sen. bill 457 and 738, have proposed the idea of regionalizing state schools. Another bill proposes making school districts independent financial entities. Yet another proposes that the chairman of town Boards of Education be appointed by the town leader vs. elected by the board (see below). And another proposes that motor vehicle property tax become a state vs. a town tax, with the money collected by Hartford for state use.

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.

At a forum in Norwalk last week, Duff said the reasoning behind his bill is that “50% of our school districts have fewer than 2,000 students. The state sends a lot of money to those districts to help them manage, to keep them going, but myself and others believe that a lot of that money goes toward administration,” Duff said. “We can increase student outcomes, we can help with student success, we can reduce costs and we can save money if we had some of these school districts consolidated."

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.

Looney’s bill would seek to combine state school districts in towns with less than 40,000 total population into regional ones. It would also seek to create a commission responsible for developing a plan to implement regional consolidation of school districts.

At the same Norwalk forum, Duff said that Looney’s bill, like his own, is also “a conversation starter” at this point in time.

“If one school district and another school district have a small population, do you still need two superintendents or can you have one superintendent?” Duff asked. “You are not going to reduce teachers, but the ultimate goal is to put more money into the classroom.”

Looney told The Darien Times’ sister paper, The Ridgefield Press, the intent of the plan he envisions would not be to close schools.

“The savings would come in administrative consolidations and economies of scale in bulk purchases,” he said.

According to Looney, consolidating districts would not only save money by cutting high-paid administrators, but it would also give the regional district more leverage when it negotiates for services.

Though currently there is no mandate in the bill that would force schools to regionalize, Channel Fox 61 reported him as saying “an alternative way to approach it would be to say that towns that refuse to join a regional construct would lose their state aid.”

Bill 738 says the regionalization could occur in a similar fashion as the regionalization of probate courts. Darien’s court was combined with New Canaan’s court. Wilton was combined with Norwalk’s. Though Darien and New Canaan seem more similar in size and demographic than Wilton in Norwalk, Planning & Zoning Commissioner John Sini pointed out in a letter to The Darien Times that doesn’t mean that the fiscal impact is just as “untenable.”

“While New Canaan and Darien share many similarities, the reality is that New Canaan is already facing significant fiscal challenges. New Canaan carries the highest debt per capita in the state — a debt balance that is two-times larger than Darien’s and carries annual debt service expenses that exceed Darien’s by almost 50%.  Moreover, while Darien’s tax base is stable, New Canaan’s tax base is facing decline,” he wrote.

It is unclear whether the pulling of state aid would influence Darien’s decision to regionalize. The last several years under the leadership of Gov. Dan Malloy, state aid to Darien’s schools has become increasingly lower and as a result, much more uncertain. Every budgetary year, town and school officials focus on planning for the worst case scenario financially, so pulling aid is an unlikely motivation for Darien to regionalize.

Opposition

A Facebook group that was begun by Wilton residents has now expanded to include other towns, including several Darien and New Canaan residents.

The group, “Hands Off Our Schools,” had over 1,800 members as of Saturday morning. The purpose of the group as stated is “We strongly oppose the bill sponsored by Senator Looney to force school districts to regionalize. While the group's focus is on SB 454 (now renamed as SB 738), we will watch similar bills being proposed. This group is created to communicate, share information, and coordinate efforts to stop SB 454 (SB 738).”

The group has coordinated campaigning efforts, sharing information, meeting information and contact information for local representatives. State Rep. Gail Lavielle has been a frequent poster, answering questions and  providing updates from Hartford and on the state’s Education Committee schedule, of which she is a member.

https://www.darientimes.com/2019/01/29/editorial-what-sticks/

Town and state officials respond

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson and State Rep. Terrie Wood, Republicans who represent Darien and Rowayton, raised objections to the regionalization of Darien’s schools.

“With our ongoing fiscal challenges, the Democrats will once again bring forward efforts to regionalize schools, health departments, and vehicle property taxes in a effort to find revenues to be able to redistribute to towns that are historically mismanaged,” Wood said.

"Consolidation on a voluntary basis always makes good sense if it saves taxpayers money or creates efficiencies," Stevenson said. 

However, Stevenson added that consolidation as a mandate in general “without a solid business plan for the savings and efficiencies is a non-starter for me as a chief elected official from a well-managed town.”

“The Darien Board of Education is now, and will remain committed to the quality public education of our children, with a locally elected Board of Education acting as state agent,” Board of Ed Chairman Tara Ochman said.

“Of significant concern, neither bill begins to address the educational issues and direct impact to students that might arise with such consolidations,” she said.

Sen. Carlo Leone and State Rep. Matthew Blumenthal, both Democrats who represent Stamford and Darien, said the bills are only a “conversation starter.”

Other local Democrat state representatives have come out against the bill. On Jan. 25, a joint statement from Democrats State Senator Will Haskell, who represents Bethel, Redding, Westport, Wilton, New Canaan and Ridgefield, State Senator Alex Bergstein, who represents Greenwich, and State Representative Lucy Dathan, who represents Norwalk and New Canaan, said the state officials could not support it.

“We have deep respect for Senator Looney and are always open to discussing the difficult issues facing our state, including the issue of regionalization, because finding efficiencies in state spending is a priority for us. However, we cannot support SB 454 to regionalize our schools,” they said.

The Wilton Democratic Town Committee also issued a statement opposing the regionalization concept.

David Bayne, the chairman of Darien’s Democratic Town Committee, told The Darien Times the committee “has not discussed or voted to take a position on Sen. Looney’s bill,” and said they would next meet in March.

Darien Republican Town Committee chairman Chris Taylor said he echoed Stevenson’s reaction.

“First, all regionalization proposals should have a detailed cost/benefit analysis done for the benefit of students and taxpayers.  Past that we don’t know what will come out of Hartford, the Democrats continue to put forth an agenda that isn’t pro-growth and won’t bring jobs back to Connecticut,” he said.

https://www.darientimes.com/2017/03/30/editorial-double-standard-the-states-view-on-fairfield-county-depends-on-who-benefits/

Board of Ed chairman bill

Another bill proposed by Sen. Bob Duff is SB 458, which is “to authorize the chief elected official to appoint the chairperson of the local board of education for certain municipalities.” The municipalities included in the bill would be those where the Board of Ed budget is equal to or greater than 50% of the total town budget.

Last year’s Darien town budget total was approximately $145 million for the coming year, with approximately $98 million for school district funding and $47 million for town government operations. The equates to the school budget being approximately 67% of the total budget.

Darien Board of Ed Chairman Tara Ochman told The Darien Times she does not support the bill proposed.

I think what this proposal misses is an inherent understanding of the checks and balances of institutions, and why the fundamentals of government are set up they way they are. School board members are locally elected officials who act as agents of the state in providing oversight of the local school system,” she said.

The current system “values the local community’s electoral choice in board of education members,  and keeps the interest of school children from being part political game play,” Ochman said.

“Darien has thrived under this model. Our boards, town and school, are faithful to their charge, representative of the community as a whole, and committed to Darien,” she said.

Stevenson, who would have the authority to appoint the Board of Ed chairman if the bill passed, said “I’m not sure leadership power shifts are the appropriate answer to creating the best relationship between the towns and boards of education.”

“We owe it to our taxpayers to come together, voluntarily on an honest effort to analyze and implement intra-municipal service sharing before the state mandates town charter changes and regional consolidations,” she said.

“Any legislation to enable cities and towns to work together for the benefit of our students and taxpayers is welcome,” Stevenson said.

Education Committee process

A meeting of the Education Committee on Jan. 28 included an early discussion of the bills. Lavielle asked about both Looney’s and Duff’s bills, saying her constituents had reacted strongly to the concept of regionalizing schools, and asked for reassurance that this wasn’t something that would be mandated.

Watch the meeting here.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Robert Sanchez, a Democrat who represents New Britain, said the intent wasn’t to force schools to do anything.

State Rep. Michelle Cook, a Democrat who represents Torrington, said she came from an area who had regionalized schools — “That is all I know, and I think I did ok.”

Cook said if the conversation is “closed before it ever gets started, we are never going to make change,” and added that “if regionalism is what we have to do to make education in the state of Connecticut work, then we need to figure out how to make that work.”

“I know that forcing people to do things is not always the right way to go, but sometimes we have to help people get there, because they aren’t going to get there on their own,” Cook said.  

Adding that all sides needed to be listened to, she said “I look forward to having some honest conversations and maybe making some tough decisions. because that is what we were elected to do.”

State Rep. Roland Lemar who represents New Haven, said he echoed Cook’s statements and thanked McCrory for “not bowing over the last four days” to pressure.

Read Michelle Cook’s op/ed on regionalization in Saturday’s Norwalk Hour.

Lemar pointed out that over the last four days, he’d seen “great distress,” over the idea of regionalizing of educational services, which evoked some laughter in the room.

“That’s a shame because a lot of communities have benefited from the structural inequities inherent in our system today,” Lemar said.  

“If we are are going to move beyond that, we have to be vigilant and adamant that we will have conservations that are hard and challenging. and may cause distress to the status quo,” Lemar said.

Lavielle said the Education Committee next meets on Monday at 1 p.m. in Hartford.

Read the agenda here.

It is likely to be a very short meeting. On the agenda, you can see that we will be voting on the question of holding a public hearing for SB 457 and SB 738 (formerly SB 454),” she said.

While Lavielle noted it was not a public hearing, the public is welcome to attend.

“It is a voting meeting about raising concepts for the committee's session agenda and about scheduling public hearings for bills,” Lavielle said.

The meeting can be watched here.

editor@darientimes.com