If you think three recent state bills that would greatly impact Connecticut schools is more than enough for residents to grapple with this year, wait, there’s more.
On Friday, March 15, commonly known as the Ides of March, the state legislature’s Planning & Development Committee will hold 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 would basically turn Boards of Education in Connecticut into independent taxing districts,” said state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143), who is vehemently opposed to the bill and plans to testify against it.
The bill was introduced by the Planning & Development Committee and is applicable to Wilton and all local and regional school districts in the state, except for five: Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Waterbury and Stamford.
“Creation of independent school taxing districts would diminish the role residents play in the determination and allocation of funding of their schools,” Lavielle said.
Among Lavielle’s concerns with the bill are:
"It gives the new school taxing districts the power to assess, levy, and collect taxes on all property for the purpose of providing educational services.
"It gives these districts the power to borrow money and issue bonds for the purpose of providing educational services.
"It gives these districts the power to appropriate funds for the purpose of providing educational services.
"It withdraws from towns the power to assess, levy, and collect taxes; borrow money; and appropriate funds for the purpose of providing educational services.
“With every school district becoming an independent school taxing district, there would no longer be any municipal oversight over the finances of school districts,” Lavielle said.
For Wilton, it means the town could no longer assess or collect taxes for the purpose of providing educational services, Lavielle said. The school taxing district would have its own assessors and collectors.
In addition, the Board of Finance would no longer be able to judge how much Wilton taxpayers are willing to pay for the education budget (which accounts for about 70% of the overall budget) or give budget guidelines to the Board of Education.
Lavielle wondered how the school taxing district would determine how much it would tax residents. “Would there be any direct consultation of the residents when there comes time to borrow money or bond?” she asked.
A school taxing district would also cut the need for town meeting approval for the education budget, Lavielle said.
The bill does not say what entity would govern the school taxing district, who would hire the district’s tax assessor and tax collector, or who would determine their salaries, Lavielle said.
Lavielle is concerned with what appears to be a lack of checks and balances by having the same people who determine education spending to be the ones ordering its implementation.
While the town currently borrows money for things like school construction, that would no longer be the case. “The school taxing district would do its own bonding,” Lavielle said.
Preparing the turf
House Bill 7319 does not specifically pertain to the issue of school regionalization, as three other recent legislative bills do, but it “prepares the turf should any regionalization take place,” Lavielle said.
For school districts that regionalize, Lavielle said it appears decisions on school bonding would be made on a district-wide basis, and could no longer be voted on by individual town referenda.
“So if two towns are in a district, and the people in one town want to build a new school, can they do it if the people in the other town don't want them to?” she asked.
She also wondered how the school taxing district would determine how much it would tax residents. “Would there be any direct consultation of the residents when there comes time to borrow money or bond?” she asked.
No rationale
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice said there is no rationale for this bill other than to facilitate forced regionalization, and she does not support it.
“We currently have an effective system of checks and balances,” she said. “The state oversees and controls education throughout the state. In turn, the municipalities determine the funding for that education. By removing the municipalities’ role in funding, the bill removes the system of checks and balances and potentially harms taxpayers.”
She said the bill provides for a duplication of functions within the Board of Education that already exist within the town, thereby increasing costs and running counter to the town’s efforts to consolidate administrative functions.
The bill would also increases the cost of bonding for Board of Education projects as the Board of Education will not have the reserves that allow the town to maintain its Aaa bond rating and low bonding costs, she said.
The public hearing on House Bill 7319 is being held in Hartford at noon on Friday, March 15. Anyone interested in submitting testimony may send it by email to PDtestimony@cga.ct.gov and include the bill number in the email subject line and body of the email. The email should also contain the name and town of the person submitting the testimony.
pgay@wiltonbulletin.com