Proposed bill could consolidate Wilton and Norwalk school districts

A newly proposed bill in the Connecticut legislature could consolidate Wilton, Norwalk and more local school districts into one.

The bill (SB 454) was introduced by State Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney (D-11), who represents New Haven. If passed, the new bill would create a commission charged with developing a plan to consolidate school districts with fewer than 40,000 students, along the lines of existing probate districts.Wilton and Norwalk share the same probate court. In the statement of purpose at the end of the bill Looney wrote, “To create a more efficient educational system.”

State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) said an effort to regionalize districts for efficiency reasons alone is not an appropriate move.

“Whatever we do in this state to education we want to make sure we’re improving the quality and that as many people as possible have access to it,” Lavielle said. “If we don’t do that, then we’re failing.”

The proposed bill also spells out two other guidelines. The first deals with how different collective bargaining units would be negotiated. Initially, this would be collectively and then the units would consolidate once pre-existing agreements expire. Second, the date of the consolidation would be July 1 2021, according to the text of the bill. This date is effective if the plan has not been approved by legislature and signed into law on or before July 1, 2020.

Lavielle said the bill’s focus on collective bargaining instead of quality education was also concerning.

“A quality has to be maintained,” she said.

The potential consolidation could reduce the quality of Wilton schools, Lavielle said. Norwalk, too, could see some of the work they’ve done to improve their schools reversed by the consolidation.

State Sen. Will Haskell issued a statement Friday saying he could not support Looney’s bill.

“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,” he said. “However, we cannot support SB 454 to regionalize our schools. Nor can we support SB 431, which includes a property tax increase that would be devastating to residents of Fairfield County. Increasing property taxes only encourages people to leave CT and slows the economic rehabilitation of our state. As members of the Democratic caucus, we’re determined to make Connecticut a more affordable state for our constituents to live in.”

Superintendent Kevin Smith told The Bulletin “the No. 1 assumption in the bill is a regional district of 40,000 students is preferable to local districts,” an assumption he questions.

“I think it absolutely should be studied,” Smith said. “But the purpose of the bill should look at the merits of regionalization.”

Smith said the idea might be for some form of cost savings with the bill potentially establishing a single superintendent for the district.

“I think it would be important to understand what the benefits would be before we force a law through,” he added.

Smith said a potential regional district could combine Weston, Ridgefield, Darien, New Canaan, Region 9 and Norwalk along with Wilton to hit a population of 40,000 students. He said while there can be more efficiencies with regionalization — such as in purchasing power or transportation — more information is needed.

“I’m cautious of the assumption this is somehow better,” Smith said.

Though the bill was recently proposed there have also been unintended consequences. Lavielle said she has been told the existence of the bill has caused the real estate market to go soft. This effect could also be potentially mirrored in neighboring towns, she added.

“The mere fact that it has existed has concerned many people,” Lavielle said.

Local response

Among those concerned is the Republican Town Committee, which issued a statement strongly opposed to the bill.

“The proposal … would seriously jeopardize Wilton’s reputation for high-quality, locally controlled education. Other serious consequences for Wilton, known and unknown, would no doubt follow,” the statement said.

The RTC is inviting the public to an information session on the bill on Thursday, Jan. 31, at 7 p.m., at Comstock Community Center. “All are welcome and families with students in Wilton schools are strongly encouraged to attend. The purpose of the meeting is to facilitate responses to the bill by all Wilton residents and give each the opportunity to be heard in Hartford as the bill is debated,” the RTC said.

Though there are concerns surrounding the bill, there are many chances that it won’t be passed, Lavielle said. The bill was referred to the education committee on Thursday, Jan. 24, which Lavielle sits on, and then leadership will decide whether or not there is a public hearing.

“I suspect it will get a public hearing,” Lavielle said. “After the public hearing who knows, but I think there will be a great deal of opposition to it in the legislature.”

Anyone who would like to contact officials besides their local legislators may voice their opinion to:

  • Sen. Martin Looney (D-New Haven) – Senate President Pro Tempore, introducer of the bill.
  • Sen. Douglas McCrory (D-Hartford) – Education Committee Senate Chair.
  • Rep. Bobby Sanchez (D-New Britain) –  Education Committee House Chair.

They may be reached through the www.cga.ct.gov General Assembly website.

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com, 203-842-2568

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