Wilton residents up in arms over a state bill proposing regionalizing school districts have formed “Protect Wilton Schools,” to organize efforts to try to stop the bill completely. At a meeting Thursday night attended by more than 200 people, organizers provided information about the legislative process and the plans they’ve started building to coordinate opposition.
The effort to defeat the bill was organized by the Wilton Republican Town Committee, led by RTC chair Bill Lalor. While the RTC started the group, Lalor was specific that the effort needed to be bi-partisan, saying, “I’ve never seen the unity we’re seeing.” At one point in the meeting he called up Wilton Democratic Town Committee chair Tom Dubin to speak to the crowd in order to emphasize that, saying, “Tom’s a very gracious guy.”
The meeting featured several town officials, including Wilton’s three legislators–State Representatives Gail Lavielle (R-143) and Tom O’Dea (R-125), and State Senator Will Haskell (D-26). Haskell’s stay was brief, as he was hosting a simultaneously scheduled constituent meeting at Norwalk Community College that had been set well before Wilton’s Meeting was announced. Also there were several current and former municipal officials: First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice; Selectman Josh Cole; Selectwoman Deb McFadden; Board of Finance members Jeff Rutishauser and Peter Balderston; former state senator Toni Boucher; and former first selectman Bill Brennan.
Wilton’s Board of Education was holding their previously scheduled meeting at the same time as well. Earlier, Chair Christine Finkelstein had released a statement vowing to fight the “awful, horrible idea,” and Superintendent Kevin Smith had released a similarly strongly-worded letter that he had sent to legislators in Hartford. Finkelstein expressed that the BOE and school officials would have attended the Protect Wilton Schools meeting if they didn’t have theirs already scheduled.
The Protect Wilton Schools meeting lasted two hours. There was a lot covered. We’re going to do our best to summarize the key points, as several things happened and salient points were made:
- Wilton’s legislators explained the legislative process, how SB 454 was introduced by State Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, and what path it may take, how it may get changed along the way, and what citizens can do to oppose it and stay aware of what’s happening in Hartford.
- Residents asked questions and gave their thoughts on just how upset and concerned they are. While sometimes partisan points were asserted, Lalor and others tried to quash the partisanship, reinforcing how critical it was for the effort to be united and bi-partisan. They reinforced how much this impacted everyone and how residents on both sides of the aisle are equally angry and motivated to stop the bill, including all three legislators.
- Lalor described several action items and plans that are being coordinated. (Those are listed further down in this article.)
- There is a new version of the bill and a new bill number. This week, Sen. Looney’s office stated there was a drafting error in SB 454. The original version said that the bill’s provisions would apply to school districts with fewer than 40,000 students, but the intent was to have them apply to school districts in towns with total populations of fewer than 40,000 people. A revised version of the bill was introduced. This is SB 738. They emphasized that it’s critical to use the current bill number in all correspondence with state legislators.
- Ramification of regionalization: The Bill would eliminate local control of Wilton schools. “Wilton runs schools as Wilton sees fit, this is truly Hartford telling Wilton how to run its schools.”
- Ramification: Multiple studies have shown that consolidation does not lead to efficiencies or cost savings.
- Ramification: Larger scale and differing priorities could lead to a decline in the quality of Wilton’s schools, as well as those of districts to be consolidated with Wilton.
- Ramification: The existence of the bill is already dissuading potential homebuyers from considering Wilton. “Let there be no doubt about it, this will hurt Wilton.”
- Residents going to Hartford is critical–whether for hearings on the bill, meetings of the education committee, to speak in front of media. Organizers will keep residents aware of key dates and events via the Protect Wilton Schools Facebook group.
- Wilton is NOT the only town upset by proposed consolidation. It’s critical to get people in those towns engaged too. Legislators need to see that a groundswell of Connecticut residents don’t want regionalized schools. Norwalk’s Board of Education voted that they don’t want to do this. Several policy and governmental coalitions that the town belongs to and that Vanderslice is involved with are also against the effort. Information is being shared and Wilton’s town attorneys are watching the issue as well.
- Talking points: Legislators outside of Wilton will not be sympathetic to concerns about decreasing property value. What will work are discussion points about quality of education and wanting to determine what happens to your own children.
- Lavielle said that one of her “great fears” is that the proposal for regionalization will transform into a proposal for a study. Then there will be a call for a pilot regionalized program, and “after the pilot then there will be another bill… the uncertainty could hang over us for several years, which is why we have an interest in killing it now.” The possibility that this will linger makes it important to get plugged in and get organized.
- A suggestion was made by a resident to explore putting up billboards around the state to get a message to legislators.
“This is a marathon not a sprint, there’s a lot to do.” Several officials said how this bill could be amended over time, added to other legislation, changed to propose creating a group to study regionalization… They urged the need to stay vigilant and stay involved. This is likely a months-long effort.
“There seems to be some sentiment for consolidation around the state in some shape or form. There are indications that Gov. Lamont could get behind it.”
“This is damaging as long as the specter of consolidation is out there. Our goal ought to be to kill this bill, make sure it is withdrawn.”
“What the bill doesn’t say is as troubling as what it does say. Left open to guess is the impact on teachers, class size, bussing, facilities (retrofitting, merging), curriculum, etc. To make the transition would cost money. I know what Wilton does, I know what I like about Wilton. We know the people on our School Board. You can pick up the phone, they’re our neighbors, talk to them about policy, logistics, standards, all of them.”
Why going to the hearings is important: “It’s the personal stories that get the legislators. This is emotional and people will listen to those stories.”
“Wilton has become a focal point but there are other towns. Meetings like this one are going on throughout the state.”
“This is not about politics, it’s about our children.”
Among the action items Lalor outlined for residents:
- Lalor said that a Facebook group page called Protect Wilton Schools has been created to help coordinate efforts and share information among residents, including updates, calendar items, ways to get involved.
- There are several petitions–if residents haven’t signed one yet, they are encouraged to.
- Change.org petition started by Wilton resident Steve Massaua, now at 3,970-plus people
- A statewide petition sponsored by the CGA House Republicans
- By Monday/Tuesday (Feb. 4-5): call 5 CT legislators, write 5 letters to legislators, get 5 friends (not just from Wilton, but also from around the state) to do the same. Contact state senators and representatives from districts outside of Wilton, as Wilton’s lawmakers are already onboard
- Write 5 letters to news media (including GOOD Morning Wilton at firstname.lastname@example.org); post on social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
- Join one of Protect Wilton School’s volunteer working groups, meeting at Comstock Community Center Monday, Feb. 4 and Thursday, Feb. 7. (details via the Facebook group page)
- Letters and Phone Calls: Keeping up a sustained effort to contact Hartford legislators “until we don’t need to do it anymore.”
- Messaging, Media & PR: getting the message out to a broader audience (via TV/radio)
- Coordinating with other towns: Show that the concern is not just Wilton’s, and not just Fairfield County’s–that no one is interested in regionalizing
- Facebook Administration: keeping the Facebook page and calendar current
- The next meeting of the Education Committee in Hartford is Feb. 11. It is a meeting, but not a public hearing, so there will be no public comment or testimony. However, citizens can show up. A vote on whether or not to hear the bill in committee may be brought up at that meeting.
- Find volunteers and other people to help out with the effort. “We need human capital.”
- Help organize and get ready to take bus trips to Hartford. A date for a public hearing won’t be known until five days before it’s scheduled, but it is likely to happen in late February or the first two weeks of March–after Feb. 20 when the Governor gives his budget proposal. Lavielle says, “If you’re going to go to just one Hartford meeting, go to the public hearing.”
- Former first selectman Bill Brennan told how past similar efforts–Super 7–never got out of committee in Hartford because of similarly organized public groundswell. “Everyone let their voice be heard, that’s what we have to do. My biggest concern is that this bill can change and morph into different things. We have to stay alert, what can change, what they amend it to, what we can do now is to watch and hang in there, and when we see [something happening], we have to go up to Hartford and testify. We have to make a lot of noise. They like to hear the noise, when they hear the emotions, that it’s bi-partisan, that everyone is totally against it. I’m totally impressed with the enthusiasm I see here tonight.”
GOOD Morning Wilton‘s Prior Coverage:
Bob Duff-Proposed Bill–SB 457
There is a second bill (SB 457) calling for school regionalization proposed by State Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk). While organizers say the bill that is most concerning is the Looney bill, the Duff-proposed bill is also a concern, indicating that some lawmakers want regionalization no matter what.
Duff’s bill calls for districts with fewer than 2,000 students to share services regionally, or risk losing state funding. The risk is that the number of students may get changed at any point in the legislative process, or the bill will get passed at 2,000 and then in later years get increased.
At the event at Norwalk Community College last night–the one Will Haskell had been committed to prior to the Protect Wilton Schools meeting–Duff was there, and several Wilton residents attended that as well. Reportedly residents from New Canaan and Norwalk were pressing Duff about this, and expressing their strong opposition to it and any type of school district consolidation.