UPDATE: Connecticut regionalization bill filed with error in language regarding population

UPDATE TUESDAY 11 a.m. — On Monday, The Darien Times received comments from interim Schools Superintendent Elliot Landon and State Rep. Matthew Blumenthal, who represents  Stamford and Darien.
Landon told The Darien Times he is “opposed to the consolidation of school districts by administrative directive through the state legislature.”
“If individual school districts and municipalities wish to consider consolidation on their own, that is a local prerogative that should not be discouraged,” he said in an email.
“However, in making such a decision, all the school districts and municipalities involved should consider the impact on their local tax rates and related costs, the costs of transportation, the costs of maintaining unoccupied buildings, and the restrictions imposed by local employee contracts,” he said.
Blumenthal told The Darien Times he was thankful to constituents for reaching out to him on the bill.
“I understand why it concerns them. At this point, however, it is only that — a proposal. It was one of several thousand proposed bills filed before the deadline last week,” Blumenthal said.
“Of those, only hundreds will receive any committee’s consideration. Those that do undergo considerable vetting and modification. At our committee meeting today, the Education Committee did not include any proposal for involuntary regionalization among the concepts raised,” he said.
"As one of Darien’s representatives and a member of the Education Committee, I am watching this proposed bill very closely. As always, I am happy to speak with those who have questions or concerns,” he said.
Sen. Bob Duff has not yet responded to a request for comment.

SATURDAY 11:37 p.m. — Sen. Carlo Leone, who represents part of Darien and Stamford, gave the below statement to The Darien Times about the proposed regionalization bill:

At the beginning of each session, many ideas are floated — as is being reported daily by media outlets, and not every bill raised is passed as law. The bill referenced is a proposal regarding regionalization to provide effective services in a fiscally responsible manner. Although it is speaking to schools, the talking points of regionalization for services can easily be the same for other services in order to better deliver what can be afforded by the state for each municipality.

This bill is only a starting point to have serious discussions, and is far off from anything conclusive. The debate needs to be had to flush out any merits to the concept. Importantly, initial language can easily change along the process (as evidenced by the drafting error mentioned in your article)  and therefore it is prudent to not rush to any judgments until, and if, a final draft becomes available.

9:08 a.m .  — The regionalization bill filed Thursday by Senate President pro tempore Martin Looney was filed with an error in its language, as confirmed by Kevin Coughlin, director of communications for Senate Democrats. The bill applies to towns with less than 40,000 total population  vs. how it was written, which was that it applies to towns with 40,000 less than total student population.

He also confirmed that though the language has changed, towns with less than 40,000 population could still be "re-aligned" with larger towns, along the same process as the former probate court re-alignment that saw Wilton, a town of 18,500, merge with Norwalk, a town of more than 89,000. Darien merged with New Canaan's probate court during that 2011 process, so conceivably, should the regionalization bill move forward, those two school districts could possibly regionalize.

Read reaction from First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, State Rep. Terrie Wood and Board of Education Tara Ochman below. The Darien Times reached out to Sen. Duff, State Rep. Matthew Blumenthal, who represents part of Darien and Stamford (both Democrats), and interim Schools Superintendent Elliot Landon for comment on Thursday upon learning of the bill filing. The story will be updated when and if they respond.

FRIDAY 11:35 a.m. — A new bill introduced into the state senate would seek to regionalize, or combine state school districts with less than 40,000 students into regional ones.

The bill, An Act Concerning the Creation of Regional School Districts, was introduced by Senate President pro tempore Martin Looney. Looney, a Democrat, represents Hamden, New Haven and North Haven.  The president pro tempore is the chief leadership position in the Senate.

The act would seek to create a commission responsible for developing a a plan to implement "regional consolidation of school districts."

It would "re-align" those school districts with a total student population of less than 40,000 students. It is similar to the bill that consolidated probate court districts, combining New Canaan and Darien, and would "require such school districts to join a regional school district."

It would also have the regional school district to be represented by a "new collective bargaining unit for such regional school district."

The purpose of the bill, as per the language, is to "create a more efficient educational system." So far the bill's status is that it was referred to the joint committee on education on Thursday, Jan. 24. 

State Rep. Terrie Wood, a Republican who represents part Darien and Rowayton, told The Darien Times the "language of this bill is confusing."

"All school districts in Connecticut have less than 40,000 students. Does that mean that all schools will be forced to regionalize? I don't know but will find out from Senator Looney, the introducer of the bill," she said.

"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.

Wood said this is the focus of state leaders vs. "the common sense approach that families and small businesses use of looking at how to cut expenses and create more accountability."

"With strong Democrat majorities voted in in November, taxpayers need to be aware of these plans and call their state reps and state senators with their thoughts," she said.

Another regionalization bill also referred to the same committee on the same day was bill 457, by Sen. Bob Duff, Senate Majority Leader, who represents and Sen. Catherine Osten, who represents Columbia, Franklin, Hebron, Lebanon, Ledyard, Lisbon, Marlborough, Montville, Norwich and Sprague. Both are Democrats.

This bill proposes to amend state statutes to require any “any school district with a student population of fewer than two thousand students to join a new or an existing regional school district.”

If a district opts not to join a regional district, this bill would require them to explain their reasons in writing to the state’s Department of Education.

This bill’s stated purpose is “to require certain small school districts to create new or join existing regional school districts.”

Town leaders respond

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said it was "surprising" how quickly these bills have been introduced and said chief elected officials are busy trying to get more information about them and trying to find out "if it is possible something like this could pass."

"Some of us believe it is a way to begin negotiations on sharing the expenses of the cost of teacher pensions," Stevenson said.

While it is early on in the bills' process, Stevenson said all should pay close attention to the debate and how the bills come out of committee "if they do at all."

"There's no question this legislative session will be chock-full of regional and government consolidation initiatives," she said.

Stevenson added that "consolidation on a voluntary basis always makes good sense if it saves taxpayers money or creates efficiencies."

However, she 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."

Stevenson also said she is "eager" to get feedback from the Darien Board of Education and "if I can be helpful in advocating against it."

Board of Education Chairman Tara Ochman said the bills are new, and the board has not yet met to discuss. However, Ochman said "we have reached out to both State Senators to discuss their individual bills. I would expect conversation on this issue at upcoming Board meetings."

"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," 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.
Democrats maintained state leadership in November with the election of Gov. Ned Lamont after previous Gov. Dan Malloy opted not to run for re-election.