Credit: GOOD Morning Wilton

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.”

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.

Join the Conversation

8 Comments

  1. It’s kind of hilarious to see people oppose regionalization and then turn around to complain that our schools spend way too much money on administrators and coaches; a fantastic way to save money on administrative salaries is to have a regional school district. (of course it also offers all sorts of other potential cost savings, like having much more contract negotiating power with outside vendors)

    Further, it appears that Sen. Looney has dropped the oh so contentious “along the lines of probate districts” language from this iteration of the bill, so that we no longer have to be shocked and dismayed at the possibility of being forced into a school district with Norwalk, but instead shocked and dismayed at the possibility of being lightly financially incentivized to enter into one with some combination of Westport / Weston / New Canaan / Ridgefield / Darien.

    I hope that as we continue to fret over school budgets, people might at least consider the possibility that consolidating administration while maintaining our own schools (nobody is going to run a bus from north Wilton to Staples High School just so that a group of rich white kids can be forced to mingle with a slightly different bunch of rich white kids) would offer substantial cost savings + the potential for exciting new programs while sacrificing very little in the way of “local control.”

    (and as a side benefit, it would also put an end to the annual ritual of voting down arbitrary last-second school budget cuts at Annual Town Meetings)

  2. It’s unclear why the leader of the Democrat majority in the Senate would introduce politically unpopular legislation that he thought had no chance of passing. Obviously, he thinks the legislation is popular with someone. Our Democratic representatives need to do more than simply vote “no.” They need to actively and publicly persuade their colleagues including Sen Looney and Sen Duff to change their position on forced school regionalization.

    1. It’s not forced; it’s a modest financial incentive, to go along with the many other financial benefits of regionalization, and it seems like we get to decide on the structure of the regional school district we would be entering into, so the size + which towns would be included would be up to those towns. In the current climate I think its prospects for passage are basically zero, but if people would stop burying their heads in the sand, I think a well-crafted regionalization bill would actually be an unambiguous win for Wilton.

      And I look forward to seeing the RTC’s statement condemning the various awful Republican-sponsored bills Chair Dubin mentioned; I’m sure we can count on Wilton Republicans to lead the charge against an abortion ban that will never pass, just like you’re counting on Wilton Democrats to lead one against a school regionalization bill that will also never pass.

  3. Every time I hear the phrase “Local Control” I just have to cringe. We all know what this means: Wiltonians trying to hold on to their race and class privilege. C’mon Wilton Dems show some vision and backbone and lead us into the 21st century where we abandon the zero sum game and acknowledge that equity and diversity are the engines of success and innovation. What exactly are we all afraid of?

    1. I agree with Mr. Wild. If the Democrats believe that “local control” is code for white privilege and that in order to achieve a race-based equity and diversity objective Wilton should hand over control of its high-performing schools and zoning decisions to more enlightened politicians in Hartford, then they should say so unapologetically.

      1. Wilton Democrats don’t believe that. Some of us wish they did, and are trying to expand the window of discussion in the hopes that one day they will, but right now they emphatically don’t.

        (personally, I’m a registered independent – Democrats at both the local and national level are way too right-wing for me – and am probably going to write up a full-bore pro-regionalization pro-inclusive-zoning op-ed at some point because I very much do want us to have an open-minded discussion about that)

  4. That proposed bill may have something to do with this: https://ctmirror.org/2023/01/23/ct-school-construction-program-grants-review-audit-kosta-diamantis/ where it was discovered “how the state’s financial share in some school projects was larger than Connecticut law allows, even though there was no explanation for why the state was picking up a bigger portion of the tab.” But that wasn’t the fault of any town, but instead corruption at the state level.

    It might also be political payback targeting specific towns in our area that have school rebuild projects in the pipeline but have recently rejected state programs such as Open Choice…

    So take it what you will but there’s more at play here.

    And for those thinking that school regionalization programs save money, take a look at how the state has handled the consolidation of the community college system, which was “supposed” to save millions…

    1. Wilton was the epicenter of “Hands off Our Schools” and yet has no major construction projects in the pipeline. Republicans tried really hard to make something out of the Diamantis business in the gubernatorial election and voters didn’t take the bait, I don’t know why you’re bringing it up again now.

      And saying that regionalization won’t save money because another attempt at centralizing a totally different thing didn’t save money is like saying that because Norwalk allowed some ugly too-big new apartment buildings, every new apartment building everywhere will also be an eyesore.

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