School regionalization is back on the table in Hartford.
Four years after Wilton led the resistance against state legislative efforts aimed at creating regionalized school districts, State Senator Martin Looney (D-11) has introduced the first new school regionalization bill for the 2023 General Assembly session.
Looney has proposed SB769, “An Act Encouraging Local School Districts to Regionalize,” with the purpose as stated, “To encourage towns to join a regional school district.”
Wilton Republicans were swift to call foul, issuing a statement saying local Democratic legislators should repudiate Looney’s move. Wilton Democrats responded that not only were Republicans mischaracterizing where they stood but that such statements were a distraction from the Republicans’ own legislative efforts to restrict abortion, gun safety measures and voting — which would be defeated just like Looney’s SB769.
Looney, the State Senate’s President Pro Tempore, is a Democrat representing New Haven, Hamden and North Haven. Similar legislation he introduced in January 2019 inspired statewide opposition to regionalizing or consolidating school districts after Wilton organized an effort called “Hands Off Our Schools.”
In the 2023 bill, Looney proposes the state should do the following:
- Reduce state reimbursement to towns for any school building project by 20 percentage points if the town:
- has fewer than 25,000 residents
- is not a member of a regional school district
- and contains a high school under the jurisdiction of the town’s local board of education
- Increase state reimbursement for any school building project by 25 percentage points for a five-year period after the town establishes a regional school district
Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Smith, who was a vocal critic of Looney’s efforts in 2019, was similarly dubious about the current iteration.
“It’s not clear to me what problem this bill is attempting to fix and I can’t imagine that it will receive much support given the recent history around efforts to force regionalization,” Smith told GOOD Morning Wilton.
Down This Road Once Before
Looney’s 2019 bill on school regionalization took a different approach, calling for a new commission to develop a plan to consolidate school districts with fewer than 40,000 students, along existing probate district lines. Wilton’s shares a probate court district with Norwalk.
Wilton was one of the first towns to organize bipartisan opposition to the legislation at the time. Organizers seized on the bill’s introduction as an attempt by state politicians to effectively eliminate local control of Wilton schools.
“Wilton runs schools as Wilton sees fit, this is truly Hartford telling Wilton how to run its schools,” one speaker said at the first meeting focused on what was then called “Protect Wilton Schools.“
The opposition mushroomed into an effort that saw more than 10,000 people statewide allying themselves with Hands Off Our Schools and dozens of Wilton residents testifying and rallying in Hartford. It also introduced the then-newly-elected Gov. Ned Lamont to Wilton. Wilton’s then-State Rep. Gail Lavielle was recognized for her advocacy against school regionalization efforts by the CT Council of Small Towns, and funding for a study on the topic was eventually removed from the state budget by the Legislative Appropriations Committee.
Local Control is Politics
But especially since then, the idea of protecting local control and defending against state-level overreach has become a political rallying cry, especially in races between candidates to represent Wilton in the state legislature. In past elections, both Republicans and Democrats campaigned on defending local control in education as well as for housing and zoning laws.
Over the weekend, the Wilton Republican Town Committee responded to Looney’s proposed bill with a statement [published at the end of the article] criticizing Wilton’s elected state legislators, State Rep. Keith Denning (42nd District) and State Sen. Ceci Maher (26th District), both of whom are Democrats, as well as Wilton Democratic Town Committee officials.
Most pointedly, the RTC took aim at Denning for an editorial he sponsored in GMW during the campaign last September, in which he wrote that anyone who said either he or the Democratic Party at large supported school regionalization and state-enforced zoning mandates was “fearmongering” and spreading a “false narrative.”
The RTC statement called on both Denning and Maher to “join us in strenuously defending Wilton’s independence by opposing Bill 769 and any other legislation that would forcibly regionalize our schools.”
Wilton Democrats were nonplussed by Looney’s proposal, indicating it had no chance at becoming law. Maher, Denning and DTC Chair Tom Dubin all said it won’t pass and they won’t support it.
“January is when legislators propose all sorts of bills, including those with no hope of passing. Regionalizing school districts has been a concept of Sen. Looney’s for years, but SB769 will meet the same reception as his past bills, including from Wilton’s recently elected senator and representative,” Dubin told GMW.
Maher said she would not support Looney’s proposal. “The strength of our communities lies in the strength of the education system and schools. I am opposed to forcing school regionalization upon towns and possibly endangering the quality of the schools. I will continue to work with constituents and legislators from both sides of the aisle to craft state policy that strengthens education, and will work against any proposed legislation which would threaten it. I will evaluate every bill in the legislature based upon the ideas within it, not on the political party of the bill’s sponsor,” she said.
Denning said he too would not vote for Looney’s bill, and he continues to stand by the sponsored op-ed he ran during the campaign in September, when he wrote, “I do not support regionalizing our schools, nor does the Democratic Party at large.”
Denning dismissed the local Republican response as a distraction and “sensationalism.”
“This year, any legislator can propose any bill they want, including the bills limiting abortion that some Republicans have introduced. Regionalization will not move forward and neither will the abortion restriction bills. More sensationalism from Republicans. And yet, the January 6 commission results get no local outrage,” Denning wrote.
Dubin echoed what Denning said, pointing to bills introduced by Republicans in January “with similar [poor] chances of success.”
“A good example are the annual Republican bills to restrict abortion — including several proposed this January. Or the annual Republican bills to relax gun safety — including several proposed this January. Or the annual Republican bills to restrict access to voting — including several proposed this January. Or last week’s Republican bill to limit governors to two terms (hmmm),” Dubin wrote.
“The real news from Hartford includes continuing budget surpluses, unprecedented pay-down of historic pension debt, Democratic proposals to reduce middle-income and small-business taxes, and of course Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas’ proposals regarding early voting,” Dubin added.
Statement of the Wilton Republican Town Committee Regarding School Regionalization
This week the Democratic Party leader of the Connecticut General Assembly proposed Bill 769, “AN ACT ENCOURAGING LOCAL SCHOOL DISTRICTS TO REGIONALIZE.” Throughout the last political campaign, Wilton’s Democrats derided at the idea that school regionalization was a legitimate issue.
- As a candidate, Keith Denning placed a sponsored op-ed in GOOD Morning Wilton, “False Narrative on School Regionalization and State-Enforced Zoning Mandates — Fearmongering vs. Facts,” in which he flatly stated, “I do not support regionalizing our schools, nor does the Democratic Party at large.”
- Candidate Ceci Maher similarly wrote, “My opponent’s rallying cry is ‘local control,’ a talking point that stokes fear of state takeovers of our schools.”
- The Wilton Democratic Town Committee, bought space in GMW to accuse local Republicans of, “repeating the myth that the state Democratic platform calls for regionalizing our schools.”
In light of Bill 769, either these Democrats were ignorant of their party’s true agenda or were willfully misleading voters during the campaign. Either explanation is disgraceful.
Common sense Wiltonians of all political persuasions oppose any state-mandated or coerced effort by the Democrat supermajority in Hartford to undermine local control of our schools.
We expect State Senator Ceci Maher, State Representative Keith Denning, and the Wilton DTC to put the town’s interests above those of their political party and join us in strenuously defending Wilton’s independence by opposing Bill 769 and any other legislation that would forcibly regionalize our schools.
Editor’s note: The article has been updated to correct the statement released by the RTC regarding who purchased and paid for a DTC-sponsored letter during the 2022 election. It was paid for by the DTC, not individually by DTC Treasurer Jane Rinard.