If it wasn’t clear already, Wilton can be 110% sure that Gov. Ned Lamont knows exactly how town residents feel about the threat of school district regionalization–and, he says, that he doesn’t want to change Wilton’s school district.

At a surprise press conference in Weston late Tuesday afternoon, Lamont faced the media together with Fairfield County first selectmen and women, including Wilton’s Lynne Vanderslice, to say it was a priority to visit yesterday in order to talk about how his budget impacts schools–and to get a message across:

“I’m not doing anything to force any of the folks here to give up any of the local control they have of their own schools. I know how important local control over schools is and what that means.”

Lamont faced the press after an extended meeting with the top officials, both Republicans and Democrats, from not just Wilton but Weston, Westport, Darien, Fairfield and others. He said there were several ‘misperceptions’ to correct about SB 874, the implementer bill he proposed concerning efficiencies in school districts.

“I’m a believer in back office sharing of services, in purchases and IT and other things, we can save an awful lot. But my plan in my governor’s bill uses incentives; it uses carrots, not sticks,” he said, later adding, “We give incentives to shared services, shared purchasing, share superintendents, but there’s no obligation to do so….with Wilton, nothing has to change.”

He indicated that he put his own bill forward as an alternative to other legislative proposals that had made people nervous–seemingly referring to controversial bills introduced earlier in the General Assembly’s session by Sen. Martin Looney (SB 454/738) and Sen. Bob Duff (SB 457). Lamont mentioned that he had also heard from Wilton’s State Sen. Will Haskell on the legislation.

“There are a number of bills coming out of the legislature that make people nervous, that’s why I put forth a governor’s bill, with some input from Will Haskell, that very clearly says this is your school system, and these are the things I’d like to do to incent you to share services and hold down costs, but at the end of the day, they’re your schools.”

Lamont was asked about the threat in the bill to withhold state funding from towns that opted not to share certain services. He said he would re-examine the point.

“If that’s considered heavy-handed, maybe we do it a different way.”

GOOD Morning Wilton asked Lamont why the bill included the word ‘redistricting,’ to which the governor replied, “If it does, it shouldn’t.

He said he wanted to get feedback from the selectmen and talk about his proposal to have towns contribute to the teacher pension system–perhaps he should have known to be careful what you wish for.

“I got some pushback on it. Folks are saying that a) it’s expensive, b) you’re doing it too quickly, and c) you’re saying it’s 25% today, what do we know it’s going to be tomorrow?”

Lamont called the conversation “constructive,” and said he “learned a lot.”

The selectmen said they were impressed that the governor was responsive and eager for their input, and that he had come to Fairfield County to sit down with them, explain and communicate his intentions, and hear their concerns.

“That’s a change in tone and a change in process from past administrations and I’m thrilled the governor is taking steps to help out,” said Michael Tetreau, Fairfield’s Democratic first selectman.

Lamont got kudos from Republican first selectmen and women as well. Darien’s Jayme Stevenson told the press, “We didn’t agree on everything, having the governor here listening to us as CEOs of municipalities is critically important. I appreciate this dialog and I think we can make some positive change for the state of CT.”

Vanderslice agreed and what’s more, revealed that the governor has asked her for more involved input. “It was a very good dialog, a lot of good, different voices were able to share with the Governor. I did speak to some specific issues that I laid out in an op-ed today, and the Governor invited me to meet with his staff, to fix those errors that I saw in the bill, and I want to thank him for that.”

What Happened in the First Selectmen’s Meeting with Lamont 

After the press conference, Vanderslice talked with GOOD Morning Wilton, and said that the discussion she and her colleagues had with the governor was an honest dialog and people shared things openly.

“I think we brought him new information, I raised some of the same things in my op-ed, and he said, ‘Fine, come up, meet with the staff so I can fix those things,’ because it wasn’t his intention that Wilton would be sharing a superintendent, so some of the language that’s in that bill he conceded needs to be fixed. I am absolutely going to take him up on that offer, I’m going to work them on changing this bill.”

Vanderslice also said that Lamont recognized the effort driven by Wilton residents organizing opposition to any moves to regionalize schools in the state. “I referred to Wilton as the ‘epicenter,’ he knows it’s the epicenter,” she laughed, but added, “He did say he’s not looking to do what the Duff bill is doing, he’s not looking to do what the Looney bill is doing.”

She said she did tell the governor that while he believe his bill offers ‘carrots’ and incentives, his moves seem harsher than that. “I pointed out to him there are not carrots. Everything in his bill are sticks.” Vanderslice is hoping to address that when she works with Lamont’s staff.

A lot of the meeting concerned teacher pension cost sharing–and making things easier for towns if they were expected to contribute. Vanderslice said she brought up the need to change impediments the towns face on reducing their costs, in the form of legislative mandates like binding arbitration and minimum budget requirement.

“If we’re taking a share of that [pension cost], we absolutely have to have some reform. We did talk about both of those. I had some research done about how [binding arbitration] was done in other states; I was able to share that research, so I do think we had good conversation about opening that up. We also talked about changing the minimum budget requirement, he seemed to be open to that also,” Vanderslice said.

She also credits the governor with being responsive, noting that she’s already met with Lamont twice in his short time in office–contrasting that with how little interaction his predecessor Dan Malloy had with Wilton.

“This is different. This was pulled together very last minute. He went through a room full of people, not one of whom didn’t have a complaint. I appreciate that he did that.”

Despite the governor’s cooperative stance, Vanderslice reiterated the importance of residents continuing to put pressure on legislators to communicate their opposition to any regionalization of schools.

“He’s only one person, we have a legislature, there’s a lot to be said on Friday, we have to keep the pressure on. And it’s the Education Committee, not the governor, who’s going to make the decision on what bill moves out of the committee into the legislature. It’s important to talk about consolidation of schools, it’s important to talk about the pension pushdown. If you can’t come, write. There’s never been as much at stake as this year,” she said.

Haskell:  Governor Heard Loud and Clear, Our Community is Opposed to Forced Regionalization

After the press conference, GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with Will Haskell, who said he’s working to bolster the efforts of the residents and Vanderslice, and is communicating the same message directly to Gov. Lamont.

“Right after [the Hands Off Our Schools] rally on Saturday I called the Governor and said, ‘The community I represent is really concerned that your bill might lead to forced regionalization, that it’s not a carrot approach, but instead it’s going to force towns into making decisions that they otherwise wouldn’t make.’ The governor was crystal clear that that’s not what he wants to do, and I’m glad that he came down to Fairfield County to talk to municipal leaders.”

Haskell said he met with the governor one-on-one before the selectmen sat down with Lamont, to give him more feedback. “His bill’s not perfect, I don’t think he thinks his bill’s perfect. He’s open to changes that can be made so we can be spending money in the classroom because, as he said, that’s where it counts. On teachers, on students and on supplies.”

Knowing that Wilton is already a high performing district should factor into how legislators and the governor approach the issue, something Haskell believes the governor’s bill does.

“It’s not only performing well but it’s cost-efficient. What the governor needs to understand is that Fairfield County has figured out how to create good schools. It’s why so many people choose to live here, it’s a core part of what makes our community so attractive. I don’t think his bill has any intention to alter what is going right here. What he wants to change is what’s going wrong in other districts, where there are low student outcomes, and inefficient behavior, where they’re spending so much money on a back-office administrator and not enough in the classroom.”

That doesn’t mean that everyone will be happy with the governor’s bill. Opposition has been strong in Wilton and elsewhere, not just to the bills proposed by Looney and Duff, but to any bill at all, even the one from the governor, who says it doesn’t threaten Wilton.

“The governor loves quoting Hamilton, so I’ll follow his lead:  ‘Campaigning was easy, governing’s harder.’ Maybe we’re doing something if nobody is happy. I hope that’s not the case, I hope we can all find areas of mutual interest. But conversations like this one are absolutely crucial.”

Haskell doesn’t see the threat to Wilton in the governor’s proposal either, and says he’s working to make sure it stays that way. “He doesn’t want to talk about redistricting. If that was in the bill, he’s open to changing it and removing any reference to redistricting in that. I pushed him hard on that at lunch today.”

He added, “It’s far better for our community to be involved in the conversation rather than just say, ‘No, no, no.’ We have to say what we’re proposing instead. Let’s play a part in public policy as opposed to just removing ourselves from the process. That’s not productive for anybody.”

Haskell says that Wilton’s voice has definitely reached the governor–whether it’s through him, Vanderslice or constituent communication and effort.

“The letters, the testimony, it’s pouring into Hartford and it’s not even Friday. He is hearing from Fairfield County, he understands the needs of this community, and we’re going to work together to get his bill to a better place, far better than any broad brush forced regionalization proposal that’s out there now.”