Despite some tart chastisement from a couple of members of the public, State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) sought to appease concerns about regionalization of schools at an appearance at Darien Library Monday evening.
Duff, who represents about two-thirds of Darien, put forward one of the controversial bills suggesting that school districts with less than 2,000 students be combined with others in order to share services and—ultimately—save money in terms of state support.
“I’ve been talking about this for two years … This is not something that came out of thin air,” said Duff, who was scheduled to appear with State Senator Carlo Leone (D-Stamford), who only showed up in the last few minutes of the event.
Duff said there were 39 districts in the state that have “about 80 students” in them, yet receive, in some cases, millions of dollars in state support.
“We continue to subsidize these itty, bitty districts,” he said, explaining that Darien specifically would not have been impacted by his bill.
“Can’t you just give them less money … like you gave us less?” asked one man, but no response was given.
Several others were unhappy with Duff—and the idea of mandated regionalization in any form in particular—and expressed some strong feelings.
“I just don’t think that you’re showing leadership that’s in the best interest of your constituents,” said one man, who cut Duff short during his opening explanation of how the legislative process works up in Hartford.
“We don’t care about the 8,000 bills,” he said. “We don’t care that you’re head of committee … We want to know where you stand on this?”
“I support local control,” Duff said. “There is no reason whatever to take away any control of the Darien Board of Ed … to close schools, to force bussing, (anything) that would hurt the reputation of the great Darien school district.”
But Duff said the issue “requires a conversation … Some of these conversation are difficult and … people get a little nervous about them.”
“Some people have taken them to a context that was not envisioned,” he said, referencing the two other bills, one of which was put forward by Gov. Ned Lamont, the other by State Senator Martin Looney (D-Hamden).
“Most importantly, these were bills to start a conversation,” Leone said privately following his arrival, “not to enact legislation to harm our schools.”
“We’re looking to change the language as proposed,” he said, “and to clarify some of the misconceptions.”
Duff made note of a number of vitriolic emails he and other legislators received from people who did want to see their school systems combined with others.
“Some of these would make a lot of people’s skin crawl,” Duff said.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson raised the question of whether the bills, even if left dead in committee this session, could resurface again.
“I don’t know,” he said, indicating it’s possible that years later a bill returns in a new form. “We’ll see what the education committee decides to do on that issue.”
“They have a direct correlation to the governor’s budget,” Stevenson said of the bills.
Duff explained how Connecticut was unique in that municipal operating costs and school budgets were combined and taxed locally, but that generally states maintain countywide districts, which tax separately for schools.
Duff said he remained in favor of Connecticut’s method, in particular because he believed the districts should keep local control of their schools.
“You say you don’t want to take away local control,” one man said, but the regionalization efforts, he said, could set a precedent in doing just that.
“The state doesn’t know how to run the state,” he said. “Why should the state starting running local education?”
He said Duff and others were “trying all these social agenda things” in order to fix fiscal problems.
“I, for one, think that’s a joke and you should grow up and you should start being straight with us,” he told Duff, who simply thanked him for his comments.
Duff, meanwhile, defended the attention he said he gives his constituents in Darien.
“I’m in Darien quite a bit,” he said before the talk, “and I’m always listening to the people I represent, whether it’s Norwalk or Darien.”
“This is the first time you’ve come to Darien since 2014,” said one woman.
“Duff disagreed, noting that he has also consistently responded to any phone calls or emails he receives.