For his first term in office, fate has certainly given Wilton’s state senator Will Haskell a challenging start. Right off the bat, he’s had to face the introduction of SB 454, a controversial bill proposing compulsory regionalization of school districts–a bill introduced by Sen. Martin Looney, the highest-ranking member of Haskell’s party, and one which almost everyone in his district staunchly opposes. But judging by what he told a group of about 40 constituents Wednesday evening, he welcomes the challenge.

“I want everybody to know I was elected to represent all of the voters in my district, not a political party, and though Senator Looney is the Senate president and it’s not always easy to stand up to your party leadership, it’s important to keep in mind the needs of your individual district. And this, his bill, in my view, goes directly against our best interest.”

He spoke to the group gathered at Orem’s Diner for a Constituent Coffee. SB 454 was (just about) the only thing anyone wanted to discuss. For the 70-plus minutes of the meeting, Haskell deftly held his own, explaining the ins-and-outs of what’s happening in Hartford at the beginning of the 2019 legislative session and, specifically, what’s happening with this bill that has put Wilton right in the center of the firestorm.

“Wilton has made a big splash in the capital. Everybody’s coming up to me, [asking] ‘Do you represent Wilton? I keep getting emails from them.’ Your voices have been heard, loud and clear,” Haskell told them.

Haskell has opposed SB 454 from the start–issuing a statement just after news broke about the bill saying he opposed it.

“I’ve told [Looney], I won’t be voting for anything like this because I don’t think it’ll have a positive impact for our students and that at the end of the day has to be the goal of all education reform. I don’t think creating big bureaucracies, asking parents to send their kids into another town for school, is going to decrease costs or at the end of the day, most importantly, increase educational outcomes.”

He says that opposition to SB 454 is widely apparent.

“A lot of republicans oppose, a lot of democrats are coming out against it. And I think Sen. Looney understands that this is not something that’s going to have much support from our caucus.”

Nonetheless, just the existence of the bill is causing damage.

“I understand that the conversation is potentially harmful to property values. That’s why when I put out a statement just a few hours after his bill became public, I didn’t just send it to the reporters, I also sent it right to the realtors. Because I wanted them to have my statement in hand, when they’re showing homes, when they’re talking to potential buyers to say that this is not necessarily the direction that our state government’s moving,” he said, adding that he took flak from his own Democratic colleagues for releasing such a strongly worded statement so quickly.

Wilton realtors Marion and Patrick Filley were in the crowd, and had concrete evidence of the bill’s negative impact on business.

“We just hit the lowest town sales since the real estate recession. We did 206 last year, it is naive to think as long as that bill stays that we will achieve 206 this year. Marion has been working with these people from California for two years and they just saw [the news] and, oh my gosh, now they’re just saying, ‘Forget it.'”

Haskell says regionalization in some ways could help municipalities, but that’s not the case for SB 454.

“Where regionalism can decrease property taxes, it’s a wonderful idea. Where it decreases home value, in the case that I believe this legislation would, it’s a terrible idea.”

Haskell explained another reason why he believes SB 454 will face opposition from legislators.

“The Board of Education is where a lot of state representatives and state senators started their career in public service. A lot of Board of Ed folks really understand the negative impact that this could have on their local districts. I don’t think it would have much support in the House. If it were to pass the House, then it would have to go to the governor. Again, I can’t speak for Governor Lamont, but I don’t think this is the sort of regionalism that he has in mind.”

One thing he wanted to stress was how important it was to argue against the proposed legislation on the basis of why it wouldn’t work, in terms of the bureaucracy it would create, the student achievement outcomes it would hurt, and the cost savings that won’t be realized. He also was adamant about make sure something else as part of the conversation is very clear.

“I don’t like when we talk about opposing this legislation and use ‘integration’ as a dirty word. Because it’s not–we do need communities that are more integrated. But this is not the right way to go about it,” Haskell said

What about the Other Regionalized School District Bill

Haskell explained that yes, there is a second bill that’s been introduced on regionalizing school districts–but it’s one that he’s cautiously taking a look at, and he thinks it deserves to be considered–but only as it’s currently written. Introduced by Norwalk’s senator, Bob Duff, SB 457 focuses on smaller districts of less than 2,000 students. That wouldn’t apply to Wilton.

“Marty Looney’s bill says that districts with fewer than 40,000 residents have to regionalize their education systems. That is, I think, a bad idea. Regionalization, sometimes is a good idea, right? There are, and Wilton has pursued all sorts of options with other towns to cut costs, create greater purchasing power.Regionalism in some cases makes a lot of sense, especially when it’s driven by towns and when it results in cost savings for tax payers.”

What Duff’s bill would do, says Haskell is consolidate back office functions, perhaps share a superintendent or a building facility manager–not close any schools, not transport students to a different town to attend to school–to result in cost savings for the state and the town. For Haskell, the only town in his district it would apply to is Redding, and they already share a superintendent and other functions with Easton.

“I haven’t taken a position on Bob’s bill yet. It’s so early in the legislative process, it hasn’t even been drafted. I can’t say that I’ll support it, I can’t say that I’ll oppose it, but it’s very different from Senator Looney’s bill, which I had no problem saying I’m going to oppose,” Haskell said.

Like many of her Wilton neighbors, Patti Tomasetti has been following the issue closely, and she was at the last night. She asked Haskell if it’s possible that the Looney bill was designed to take intense flak, so that Duff’s bill would be viewed as the ‘better alternative’–and at the last minute, the number of students would be raised higher. Haskell said he’s aware, and he’s watching.

“We all have to remain vigilant through the amendment process, and bills can be amended during the committee process or on the floor. I’ll certainly keep an eye on both the committee and if Bob’s bill were to reach the House or the Senate, making sure that the 2,000 number doesn’t go up. In fact, I would sort of like to see it go down. This regionalization is targeting really smaller districts.”

He reiterated this point, and said he’s still skeptical.

“There’s a million what if’s, and that’s why we all have to remain vigilant. And keeping an eye on Bob’s bill and on Senator Loony’s bill as well. Just to figure out what they become. If they’re drafted. If they’re called for a public hearing, we should all go. I’ll join you. We should testify, and be there in support of the 2,000 number or advocating for lower. Advocating to get rid of the bill altogether. Those are all perspectives that the committee needs to hear.”

Actions Wilton Residents Can Take

Haskell also had a lot to say about how Wilton should respond and already has responded. A petition started in Wilton now has well over 3,000 signatures on it. Steve Massaua, the Wilton resident who started the petition, was at the table sitting directly across from Haskell, and was there to hand-deliver the paper copy of the petition.

Haskell said he’d bring the petition right into the Democratic Caucus room.

“The work that you’ve done in collecting this petition is really helpful because when I go into the caucus room I’m not just saying, ‘I disagree with this.’ I’m saying 3,200 people do. It’s rapid response activism like that, that sends such a strong signal to Hartford.”

Wilton voters should keep up the pressure. When it’s time for a public hearing on the topic of regionalized school districts, residents need to go to Hartford in large numbers to keep sending that message to legislators. Until then, keep up the calls and emails–but do so wisely, he says.

“I’ve gotten a lot of emails and I didn’t know that phones could ring this frequently. There was a day that my phone was never not ringing. But I’m already a ‘no’ vote. People’s energy is better spent reaching out to the Education Committee members. Rest assured, I’ll be doing the same. If you only have 15 minutes, and you wanna make one call, don’t make it on me because I’m already voting against this bill.”

What To Do

Haskell gave lots of recommendations.

  1.  Tonight, in Wilton, there’s a meeting organized by the Wilton Republican Town Committee, but that is meant to be a non-partisan effort to inform people about what’s happening and how to respond. Along with Wilton’s other legislators, State Representatives Gail Lavielle and Tom O’Dea, Haskell will be there briefly before going to another panel discussion he’d committed to before this issue arose. Residents can go to that to get armed with info and next steps. That meeting is being held at Trackside Teen Center at 7 p.m..
  2. Go to the other event Haskell will head to, a panel discussion with Bob Duff and New Canaan representative, Nancy Dathan. Haskell says he’s heard many voters will be there to press Duff for answers and tell him how they feel. That event is being held at Norwalk Community College beginning at 7 p.m. as well.
  3. Get on Haskell’s email distribution list. Once a week he sends an email to constituents, updating them on issue he feels are important to the district. To sign up, visit Haskell’s webpage.
  4. Follow the Education Committee online. Sign up for alerts about specific bills and notices of public hearings. Contact the committee members, whose contact information is listed on the committee webpage.