Et tu, Governor?
That’s the reaction of some Wilton residents after hearing a remark made by Gov. Ned Lamont taking a jab at Wilton during a recent podcast interview.
It was a surprise considering one year ago, Lamont used Wilton as an example of a town that was leading the way for the rest of the state.
In January 2019, Wilton, CT was the epicenter in the statewide “Hands Off Our Schools” effort opposing school regionalization legislation proposed by State Senators Martin Looney and Bob Duff. While Lamont initially seemed to support the legislation, he eventually backed off from backing the senators’ heavy-handed concepts of merging districts like Wilton’s.
Instead, Lamont championed sharing back-office functions and services to cut costs–things Wilton was already doing, like sharing a CFO and facilities director between Wilton Schools and Town Departments; saving money with shared purchases of software and equipment; and collaborating with other towns on programs like virtual net metering and a solar field shared with Weston. In a press release his office issued at the time, the Governor applauded Wilton’s efforts that set an example for other municipalities.
Fast forward to this week. On Monday, the Governor was a guest on the inaugural episode of the CT Mirror podcast, “Steady Habits.” Asked a question about incentivizing towns, Lamont spoke about regionalizing shared services–but this time he took an unnecessary swipe at Wilton: (begins at 27:45)
“I can tell you what we can do in streamlining services. We have 169 feisty towns and they all have their own superintendent. They all have their own police chief, they all have their own fire departments. And if we can just regionalize some of those back office services, if we can say, ‘Hey look, if you share a superintendent, you share a high school, you buy IT together, you can save hundreds of millions of dollars and reduce property tax and make your town more affordable and you’ll get reelected resoundingly.’ I thought it was a pretty compelling case.
“Then, I had, you know, folks in Wilton with 300 people say, ‘No forced regionalization!’ and going to the ramparts on this. But I’m going to keep pushing because I think it makes the best sense for our communities and it makes the best sense if you’re going to hold down those property taxes.”
The Governor perhaps had some things flipped around in his recollection of events one year ago. He didn’t articulate about shared services and back office services as part of the conversation on school regionalization until after the Hands Off Our Schools outcry ramped up. As a result he came to Fairfield County and held discussions with Wilton’s First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and leaders from other towns, and his language became much more nuanced on the topic. He even invited Vanderslice to help his team make changes to his own proposed legislation. That’s when he issued his press release praising Wilton for the work it was already doing on shared services.
Lamont’s more recent comment at Wilton’s expense got a response, both on the current Hands Off Our Schools Facebook page and from town officials. It’s a comment that the Governor’s opponents locally have already seized on, especially heading into the legislative session in Hartford that’s about to start as well as the coming 2020 elections. It’s got some Wilton people worried that there’s going to be another push for stronger regionalization efforts again.
We reached out to Lamont’s director of communications, Max Reiss, to ask if the Governor might want to comment on his remark about Wilton, and perhaps walk back the dig.
Reiss said that first off, there’s nothing about forced school regionalization on Lamont’s agenda. “He’s specifically referring to back office where he’s not proposing anything new for regionalism this session at all. There’s not a single measure from our office on any regional measures. And all the Governor’s discussing now has to do with ways to save on back office costs, whether it’s IT or HR, et cetera.”
So why did the Governor use Wilton in a way that makes the town seem like we’re opposed to sensible ways to share and save–ways we’re already doing? Why make it seem like Wilton’s behavior was an overreaction? Why even bring up Wilton out of nowhere in the first place?
“He may have said Wilton, but he could have said Redding, he could have said Easton, or West Hartford. The Governor is not picking on Wilton by any stretch, not even a little bit. And he’s not proposing anything regarding regionalism, nothing this year at all. He’s talking about a concept, he’s not picking on anyone individually. But you better believe that he absolutely believes that there are, what we would describe as common sense savings,” Reiss added.
Vanderslice was surprised by the Governor’s comments on the podcast, “although I think he mixed up Wilton’s leadership in opposition to forced school regionalization with my discussions with him about Wilton’s leadership in shared services,” she says.
Would it be good to hear him apologize or walk back the dig?
Vanderslice deflects any challenge to the state’s top official, but instead has an invitation for Lamont.
“I think we would all like him to come back and see first hand the progress we continue to make in the area of shared services. A year ago, Police Chief John Lynch, Town and BOE CFO Anne Kelly-Lenz and Dr. Kevin Smith and I had a good meeting with the Governor in my office shortly after he was elected. This time, I would certainly include BOE chair Debbie Low and BOF chair Jeff Rutishauser, as I expect the Governor would be impressed to hear about last week’s collegial tri-board meeting. And of course there is our work with Weston on solar and the transfer station and the 5-town public safety facilities study. Lots to talk about and share,” she said.
Open Choice Schooling Options?
One idea that the Governor floated in the interview is the concept of a school choice program. (begins at 21:20)
“…How do I get you to take some of these kids into your school? It’s only a 10 minute bus ride away. It’s less than going to a magnet school in Hartford. And there’s a lot of reluctance and what it means in terms of school’s scores and stuff like that. But those are the ways that I could diversify opportunity for kids…
“‘I’m a lot less interested in funding a new school that’s going to be 80% occupied. You know, you can maybe merge with another school. That’s the type of thing I’m very interested in funding. You can take some kids from a chock-a-block school in Danbury or Waterbury and I’ll pay you $15,000 per student, so you’re not out of pocket to educate these kids, but your school will be better off for that….”
That’s a concept that does intrigue Vanderslice–especially given how declining student enrollment in Wilton means there could be space available for students from cities where schools may not have the same quality as Wilton’s. But, she says, state funding would be critical.
“I am very familiar with the school choice program that the Governor referenced as two of my nieces attended elementary schools through Minnesota’s school choice program. Under Minnesota’s initial program, under-enrolled schools opened up specialized schools to attract students. The state paid the school district a fixed rate for each student who attended from outside the district. Once the state began cutting their support for the school choice program, the districts were not willing to fund out-of-district students themselves.
“The Governor mentioned a Connecticut subsidy of $15,000 per student. I think a subsidy of that size would bring towns to the table for a discussion. Wilton parents and residents might be interested in Wilton hosting something like a gifted program or an arts focused program assuming it came with the subsidies. It is certainly worth discussing, but again there would have to be a way to guarantee continued support.”
Concern about Affordable Housing Pushed by the State
One other program championed by the Governor at the start of 2020 has been a push for more affordable housing. He’s introduced a plan to encourage more development of affordable housing, especially in towns that have been resistant and fought 8-30g development.
According to the Governor, he wants to incentivize towns using funding for transportation as leverage. “If you want some funding for that transportation hub, I want affordable housing to be a big part of that,” he said on “Steady Habits.” He referenced Fairfield County (although this time he didn’t single out Wilton; instead, he mentioned his own town of Greenwich).
We asked Reiss about the “carrot or stick” approach, especially in light of last year’s conversation around regionalization, which also included talk about carrots and sticks. When the state as well towns, need transportation improvements to spur economic development, why punish with that?
“The Governor is not going with a stick approach. He’s about carrots and incentives, which is precisely what he said in the podcast,” Reiss countered, adding that proposals at this point are conceptual.
“The administration recognizes that affordable housing, whether you’re in a large city or a smaller city or a town, it’s something that absolutely needs to happen. There’s a role the state has to play, but we also view the state having to do it in partnership with local communities. From the governor’s standpoint, if you want this to be as discussion as part of a concept about transforming and development, why don’t we discuss affordable housing with that? Why don’t we say maybe there’s a way for the state to kick in more money if you’re talking about some more affordable housing units. That sounds like carrots, there’s nothing about punishing–he said nothing of the sort.”
What does Vanderslice think?
“Wilton was ahead of the curve in recognizing the need for affordable housing by adding the requirement in our zoning regulations. As such we would welcome incentives and discussions, but I am not supportive of a heavy handed approach, particularly one that would reduce much needed transportation spending,” she says.
She also points to remarks Wilton’s State Rep. Gail Lavielle has made.
“Gail Lavielle did a good job of pointing out the practical issues with not spending money on the train in one town, when the train is a multi-town form of transportation.”
Under Vanderslice’s leadership, Wilton has been communicating the message that it is more open to developers and affordable housing–especially where it fits with the town’s recently developed Plan of Conservation and Development. It’s an approach with which Wilton’s first selectwoman continues to actively engage.
“I am monitoring the work of the Governor’s Fairfield County Task Force on Transit-Oriented Development, so I am aware of the state’s interest in building housing with an affordable component on state owned train station parking lots, while maintaining the existing parking. With two state owned lots in Wilton, we want to be part of that conversation. Design professionals have shared their thoughts with me about how transformative a mixed use building could be on the parking lot at the intersection of RT33 and RT7, as right now from RT7 all one sees is emptiness. On the other hand, even the Governor would likely agree that the parking lot in historic Cannondale is the wrong location for a multi-story apartment building.”
Her message to the Governor? Wilton is not the stereotype.
“The Governor assumed Fairfield County wealthy communities would oppose any development. Again, come talk to us,” Vanderslice says.