News broke earlier this week that among the many new pieces of legislation being introduced by Hartford lawmakers is a bill that proposes to consolidate school districts into regional ones. If it goes through the long process to become law, Proposed Bill No. 454 would likely mean that Wilton and Norwalk schools would be united into one large, regional school district.

The bill was introduced by the State Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney (D-11), who represents New Haven. It calls for creating a commission that would develop a plan to consolidate school districts with fewer than 40,000 students, along the lines of existing probate districts. Wilton’s current probate court district is with Norwalk.

The bill then spells out two other precepts:  1) how the different collective bargaining units would negotiate–initially it would be collectively and then they would consolidate when existing agreements expire; and 2) when the consolidation would begin–July 1, 2021 or possibly one year early on July 1, 2020, if legislatures approve the consolidation plan and it’s signed into law.

[Editor’s note:  the bill would impact ALL Connecticut school districts that fall within the specifications, not just Wilton. Because GMW is hyperlocal to Wilton, we’re focused on how this impacts the Wilton community. But this is something statewide many districts would face.]

In the ‘statement of purpose’ at the end of the bill, Looney wrote, “To create a more efficient educational system.”

The news didn’t make Wilton officials happy.

Wilton’s top educator, Superintendent Kevin Smith, says it might be worthwhile to study the issue to explore benefits and drawbacks, but adopting legislation that forces consolidation is something he calls “premature.” He would not support the bill, and says it raises too many questions.

“What exactly would we regionalize? How would costs be divided by town? How do you determine a single cost per pupil? Would we close schools (and then extend transportation times for some?) How about governance? Do you create a proportional representation model based on population? These are the questions that come to mind and I really haven’t yet thought deeply about it. All the more reason to engage in a formal examination,” he says, adding, “I can’t imagine that very many people, me included, would find this to be a good idea that should be acted upon.”

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice believes that not only would the bill, if it becomes law, have a huge negative impact on Wilton, it “already has done harm.”

“The Senate Pro Tempore’s bill is completely inconsistent with what we value as Wilton residents and citizens of Connecticut. There has been no evidence presented indicating this would improve educational outcomes or reduce cost. Instead, it would irreparably damage Wilton’s property values. By putting it on the table and generating this buzz and press, he has already done harm and has created a big distraction. It certainly begs the question I was asked throughout the day, what’s he up to?,” she says.

The first thing she did was get in touch with Wilton’s legislators.

“Earlier today, I wrote to our three representatives asking that they do what they can to ensure it is dropped or a least pushed aside to minimize the damage. As I wrote to them, I firmly believe there are potential cost savings for all districts, which can be achieved if the Senate Pro Tempore and the other legislators focus on repealing unnecessary mandates and facilitate voluntary shared services by changing the State’s mandated binding arbitration approach.”

The proposed bill would be one of the first tests for Wilton’s new state senator, Will Haskell (D-26). He’s a freshman Democrat, and the bill was introduced by the top state legislator in his party. But the bill would likely make most of his Wilton constituents, let alone much of his entire district, unhappy. Would he support the bill?

“No, I don’t think school consolidation in our community is a viable path for saving taxpayer dollars or serving students,” he said. “Fostering greater efficiency in government and saving taxpayer dollars should be a decision made by towns and encouraged by the state government. I have concerns about this bill, and I look forward to bringing them into the caucus room.”

UPDATE–3:12 p.m.:  Haskell issued a second statement, co-authored with his colleagues, Democratic State Senator Alex Bergstein (36th District) of Greenwich and Democratic State Representative Lucy Dathan (142nd District) of New Canaan:  “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. 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.”

State Representative Gail Lavielle (R-143) sits on the Education Committee, the first place this bill would be considered. Her first objection is pretty straightforward:  “A school district is not a probate district. They don’t have anything in common in the way they operate or the logic of why they were created.”

There is something else she finds worrisome–that a bill about schools seemed less about education than it did about unions.

“Another concern I have as I read the bill, is that most of it is devoted to discussing collective bargaining. I don’t see anything in the bill that discusses quality of education for students, access to good education for students, anything like that.”

It would hit Wilton hard, she says.

“The effect of something like this would be so broad and expansive that Wilton’s schools would no longer be the recipients of all of Wilton’s resources. So Wilton’s schools would change in their quality and in their offerings, as would Norwalk schools, so you wouldn’t even be talking about the same landscape. Wilton would be at great risk of losing its attraction for people who move to Wilton for the schools. Real estate values would also be affected negatively, and that’s the real concern here.”

Similarly, the move would likely result in a less efficient district rather than more. With around 12,000 students and 19 schools, Norwalk is a much larger school system.

“It’s huge compared to us in Wilton. There are all sorts of concerns that Wilton doesn’t have,” Lavielle says, adding, “You have to ask the question, will your child be going to school in Wilton or in Norwalk? I don’t know, it doesn’t say. But you also have to ask whether the Wilton’s schools, as such as they are, would be retaining their … the quality that they have, or the programs they have and what would have to be cut. What duplications would be eliminated if you have, I don’t know, three or four orchestras now between the two towns, would some of those go away? And would school systems that … Since it’s merging, would school systems that the Norwalk folks would think they were getting access to not be in the same school system anymore? Would it begin to decline in quality because of the stretching of resources?”

Because the bill was introduced by the majority party’s leadership, it almost certainly will make it to committee for discussion and a public hearing.

“Which means it sure gets a conversation. If nothing else, it gets a conversation and visibility,” Lavielle notes. “There will be some testimony, there will be some publicity, there will be some press coverage.”

According to Lavielle, the committee’s leaders will decide whether to go forward with the bill. What happens may be impacted by Looney’s stature. “If they don’t think they have the votes, they won’t call it for a vote. If they think it will not pass, they won’t even call it. They won’t, because it’s his bill, and I think they will not allow it to be voted down.”

So what can Wilton voters do now to let legislators know how they feel about this bill?

Lavielle says residents can do several things:  “If people feel strongly about it, certainly come [to Hartford] and testify [at a hearing about the bill]. They can certainly write to Senator Looney, but they can also write to the chairs and ranking members of the Education Committee–Senator Douglas McCrory and Representative Bobby Sanchez are the chairs. Representative Kathleen McCarty and Senator Eric Berthel are ranking members.”

UPDATE–12:50 p.m.:  The Wilton Republic Town Committee has released a statement, and scheduled a meeting for people to discuss further action:

We strongly oppose the Bill proposed by the Democrats’ Senate Leader that would consolidate the Wilton School District with the Norwalk School District.

The proposal (Senate Bill 454) of State Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney (D-New Haven) 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 RTC is inviting the public to an information session on the Looney Bill on Thursday, January 31, at 7:00 PM 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.

UPDATE–10 a.m., Sat. Jan. 26:  The Wilton Democratic Town Committee released a statement:  

The Wilton Democratic Town Committee agrees with Senator Will Haskell, Representative Gail Lavielle, First Selectwoman Lynn Vanderslice, and several others that Proposed Bill 454 regarding regionalization of school systems is ill-conceived. We support efforts to identify efficiencies through voluntary shared services and regionalization, but not where doing so jeopardizes the quality and local control of our schools and not in the form proposed by SB 454.