With more than 5,000 bills introduced since the early-January start of the CT General Assembly’s legislative season, plus other bills crafted in committees, it’s not surprising that new details are coming to light about additional proposed pieces of legislation that would have significant impact if they become law.

Wilton’s State Representative Gail Lavielle alerted us to HB 7319: An Act Concerning the Fiscal Independence of School Districts. She says this legislation proposes to transfer powers now held by municipalities to school districts–essentially making school districts independent from town government oversight, and giving boards of education the ability to tax and bond. It’s a bill that is also on the radar of First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, who sees it as a companion bill to other legislation that would regionalize school districts in the state.

“The overall effect is to diminish the role of residents in their school districts, whether they are local or regional, or local now and regional in the future. It would affect every school district in the state (except the five biggest) right now, but it also appears to prepare the turf for handling finances should regionalization occur in a bigger way,” Lavielle told GOOD Morning Wilton.

Here’s what HB 7319 would do:

  • School districts–both local and regional–with 15,000 or fewer students would become “educational services taxing districts”
  • These districts would have the power to assess, levy, and collect taxes on all property for the purpose of providing educational services. The bill contains the phrase “all property, subjects, or objects which may be lawfully taxed.”
  • These districts would have the power to borrow money (issue bonds, etc.) for the purpose of providing educational services.
  • These districts could appropriate funds for the purpose of providing educational services.
  • These districts would operate on a July 1-June 30 fiscal year.
  • Towns–whether they belong to a local or a regional school district–would no longer have the power to asses, levy, and collect taxes; borrow money; and appropriate funds for the purpose of providing educational services.

As Vanderslice points out, under this legislation the Board of Finance would no longer have fiscal oversight over the Board of Education, should this bill pass.

By itself, this legislation does not create regional school districts–it applies to both regional districts and independent, local ones. However it does align with other proposed legislation that would regionalize school districts, by laying the groundwork for how funds would be shared and financial decisions would be made should more schools regionalize.

With this legislation, says Lavielle, “Residents of any town participating in a regional district would have a diminished financial stake in what happens in their schools.”

Lavielle says the language of the bill raises many questions about what would happen in regional districts should it pass:

  • It appears that taxes would be assessed and collected according to a district-wide standard across the district, across town borders (lines 46-48).
  • It appears that decisions on school bonding would be made on a district-wide basis, and could no longer be voted on by individual town referenda. So if two towns are in a district, and the people in one town want to build a new school, can they do it if the people in the other town don’t want them to? In the early stages of all this, if one town has a AAA rating and the other has a B rating, what will happen to available interest rates? Eventually, will the regional (and local) districts have their own bond ratings? Will people in local-only districts be able to vote on school bonding? And so on.
  • When the district-wide taxes have been collected, who decides on how the money will be allocated? If the district contains an elementary school in each town, which one gets more of what it asks for?
  • How many more people would have to be hired to administer these regional and local districts? Who hires them? Who decides how much they earn and how their benefits are calculated? How much would this extra staff require taxes to be raised in each district?

The Planning & Development Committee drafted this bill, and will be holding a public hearing on it (as well as other on other proposed legislation) this Friday, March 15 beginning at noon. The public can submit written testimony via email.

This Tuesday, March 12, the Board of Finance and the Board of Selectmen are scheduled to begin reviewing the proposed town budget, and Vanderslice said they will discuss the proposed legislation then.

Other Legislation Proposed

There are two other proposed bills–in direct opposition to one another–that are also on the Planning & Development Committee’s March 15 public hearing agenda. They concern whether or not a Board of Selectmen has authority to fill a vacancy on the Board of Education, should 30 days pass without the Board of Education filling that open spot.

The first bill aligns with Wilton’s current Town Charter:  HB 7274 An Act Concerning the Filling of Board of Education Vacancies, would “… specify that a board of selectmen or the chief executive official of a municipality, as applicable, has the authority to fill a vacancy on a local board of education if such vacancy is not filled by such board within thirty days after the occurrence of such vacancy.”

In contrast, HB 7275 An Act Concerning Board of Education Vacancies, would “… specify that, for any vacancy on a local board of education that has not been filled within thirty days of its occurrence, the board of selectmen or the chief executive officer of a municipality, as applicable, has no authority to fill such vacancy.”