Ahead of the state Education Committee public hearing in Hartford on Friday, March 1, where bills on school regionalization and municipal pension cost-sharing will be considered, several readers have forwarded their letters and testimony to GOOD Morning Wilton to share. Below, we’re publishing a collection that is representative of what we’ve received to date. To see other examples of testimony that already have been submitted to the joint legislative committee, visit the committee’s webpage. At press time, of the nearly 1,000 letters of testimony submitted to the committee, only four are marked “in support,” and the rest are listed as in opposition.

To submit testimony to the committee in advance of Friday’s public hearing, it must be received by 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 28IMPORTANT:  Testimony must be submitted as an attached PDF or Word Document. and emailed to edtestimony@cga.ct.gov. For complete instructions and suggestions on submitting testimony, refer to our past coverage

To Revive CT’s Economy, Cut Expenses–Don’t Subvert Our Greatest Asset, Schools

Dear Members of the Education Committee:

My name is James Kettle and I am a resident of Wilton, CT. My testimony below asks the Education Committee to vote “No” on SB-874, SB-738 and SB-457. I strongly urge you forcefully reject all three bills. Further, I ask the committee to refuse to move forward any new or revised bill that proposes formation of a commission to study possible regionalization or consolidation of public school districts.

Public education is the engine of the state’s economy and Connecticut’s greatest asset. Any of the three proposed bills would do immense damage by placing a dark cloud of lengthy uncertainty over public education and intrinsically-related property values until their earliest-possible effective date of July 1, 2021.

Connecticut’s economy is in terrible shape. Our real estate markets are in a depression. Uncertainty created by the proposed study will dig our hole far deeper. Investment capital would avoid Connecticut. Any CEO, unable to assure employees that they could reside in towns with high-quality schools, will surely delay any decision to bring new jobs to Connecticut until the Spring of 2021 at the very earliest.

Approving any commission or study proposed in any of these bills will be the final nail in Connecticut’seconomic coffin. Any or all of these bills will greatly accelerate our state’s decline, leaving Connecticut further and further behind the rest of the nation. Our current population exodus will become a flood.

Simply commissioning a study will have dire consequences. The economic peril posed by the study is palpable. Three consecutive spring real estate market seasons consumed with uncertainty will undercut values and push the state into recession. Meanwhile, unelected commissioners with neither criteria nor accountability would be entitled to create winners and losers among the state’s municipalities. In the meantime, these hugely consequential bills offer but a single chance for public input–on Dec. 15, 2020.

None of the proposed bills focus on improving education outcomes. Rather, the outcome of either regionalization or consolidation will be reduced accountability and insertion of bureaucracy in the way of parents who need to advocate for their children. With traffic in many parts of the state paralyzed, requiring students to spend more time on buses will harm rather than improve educational outcomes.

Yet the leaders of a state in a desperate financial crisis propose to devote untold thousands of hours for highly-paid professionals to gather data, perform analyses and conduct meetings! If you want to help revive Connecticut’s economy, please find ways to cut expenses rather than subvert our greatest asset.

With a Master’s [Degree] in Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, I submit that regionalization or consolidation of public education is unique in its potential to drastically undermine real estate values. A host of municipal services should be considered for regionalization pilots before public education because they may well reduce costs while maintaining current levels of educational quality–without adversely impacting real estate values. At minimum, such services include public works, health, police and fire, parks and recreation, building inspection, economic development and tax assessment.

Yours truly,

James Kettle

With Proposed Legislation, Wilton will Fund CT’s Cities

submitted by Dixon Downey

While Gov. Lamont’s S.B. 874 places towns with 10,000 residents/2,000 students firmly in the cross hairs for forced regionalization at the district level, which may seem less threatening, the establishment of a “Commission on Shared School Services” with deadlines stretching through December of 2020 after the elections is the new concern as it becomes a “straw horse” to morph into other forms of regionalization. For example, Section 11 cites “Regional Special Education Centers”; whether these centers would follow the same guidelines mentioned earlier is an open question. Wilton has a population of roughly 18,500 and 4,000 student. Schools will have a regional superintendent and must report to the commission well into the next decade.

There are many unanswered questions on the impact S.B. 874 will have on Wilton. In terms of grant making and the formula for those grants, particularly with construction and maintenance of schools, the bill ranks each of the 169 towns by “net adjusted equalized grand list per capita.” While this is a traditional model, the state will apply a sliding scale cost sharing formula to this list that favors urban areas. It also provides a bonus of 10% and rounding up to regionalized schools. So this is both an incentive for regionalization, as they will receive more grant making, as well as a mechanism to distribute more grants to urban areas with broken budgets.

Also up for testimony at Friday’s hearing will be another bill by the governor:  S.B. 7150. This Bill addresses the 25% state teacher pension cost sharing and additional cost sharing for teacher salaries above the state median at a one to one ratio. It will only apply to “non distressed municipalities,” exempting cities such as Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven. Not only is this a calculated shifting of pension obligations from where they should be at the state level to the municipal level, it directs this liability to non-urban communities with sound budgets. Town officials have expressed anger and confusion without the typical process of requesting input at the local level. This is the same idea tried in the last administration with a few twists, Gov. Malloy’s, “pension push-down.”

The evidence is clear that school regionalization, or whatever you want to call it, is more about an urban-centric movement to redistribute tax revenue than anything else. Outwardly raising income or sales taxes is taboo given our well known economic woes and at least two such increases under Gov. Malloy. During the elections the high mil rates of Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven were rallying cries. School regionalization is part of a larger legislative agenda from city Democrats to divert tax revenue from low mil rate communities to the high mil rate cities, as well as to the less than 50% funded state teacher’s pension. New Haven Senator Pro Tempore Martin Looney, in separate bills, has proposed a statewide vehicle tax which would divert $6 million in revenue to Hartford from Wilton’s $128 million budget. He has also proposed a 1 mil state property tax which would not divert revenue from Wilton, i.e. just another layer of taxation, but it would provide more revenue to the state for initiatives such as PILOT or payment in lieu of taxes. Roughly 50% of New Haven’s tax base is non-profits and therefore not taxable, and PILOT would fund that gap.

So now that we have the governor’s bill, while the prospect of forced regionalization with Norwalk along probate district lines may seem less imminent, the older bills remain part of the hearing. Looney’s S.B. 738 applies to towns with less than 40,000 people, i.e. Wilton. Sen. Bob Duff’s S.B. 457 sets the bar at fewer than 2,000 students. The governor’s bill is closer to Duff’s bill, but forced regionalization for Wilton remains a part of S.B 738.

School regionalization has only been proven to create efficiencies in districts with fewer than 1,000 students. Twenty-eight of Connecticut’s smallest school districts have already regionalized without a state mandate. Wilton’s greatest concern may not be the prospect of forced regionalization, but rather the budget impacts of these bills and other bills sponsored by city democrats to redistribute municipal resources to urban communities. We will receive less education grants, potentially no education cost sharing or ECS, a likely $6 million statewide vehicle tax hit of 4.7% of our budget, the 25% pension cost sharing push-down, and perhaps worst of all, the czar-like threat of an advisory commission to manipulate cost sharing formulas in favor of urban communities. Prior to this Wilton received three cents on the dollar back from the state from income taxes in grants and aide. That relationship changes to a net municipal creditor arrangement. Expect dramatic increase in Wilton property taxes of at least 5% on top of our normal annual budget increases. Lost in translation may be special education, which may become the bargaining chip to solve municipal budget woes with regional special education centers.

There is not a single reference in any of these bills to improving education overall in Connecticut. You can interpret efficiency many ways but one thing is for certain:  the budget impact this will have on Wilton and our property taxes will require dramatic measures similar to what the state has just handed down to us. This will force belt tightening and cuts to vital programs. So many people move to Wilton for our schools. The state views this from the standpoint of cost sharing formulas and budget gaps.

Let’s Defeat Forced Regionalization.  Then Let’s Defeat The Politicians Behind It.

submitted by Chris DeMuth Jr.

Opposition to SB 738, SB 457, and SB 874

I am part of the nearly unanimous opposition to SB 738, SB 457, and SB 874 among Connecticut’s public school parents. They don’t improve our kids’ education or save taxpayers any money. They harm our communities and particularly hurt disadvantaged students. They undermine the voices of parents and teachers within our local schools.

SB 738, SB 457, and SB 874 don’t improve our children’s education.

The best overall academic achievements are in elementary schools with fewer than 500 students and high schools with fewer than 1,000. Regionalization leads to longer commutes, less parent volunteering, and less extracurricular participation. Regionalized schools have more truancy and more dropouts.

SB 738, SB 457, and SB 874 don’t save taxpayers money.

The most cost-effective districts have fewer than 5,000 students. Many of Connecticut’s large districts such as Hartford, New Haven, and Stamford have above average costs, while many of our small districts have average or below average costs. Trivial cost reductions from regionalization would come from per-pupil savings in the smallest districts. However, that represents such a small fraction of the state’s education spending that the benefits would be offset elsewhere.

SB 738, SB 457, and SB 874 hurt our communities…

These bills damage property values in towns with regionalized schools. That, in turn, harms our tax bases. They would make it harder to attract new taxpayers and businesses.

…  In fact they already are hurting our communities.

The lack of clarity in these bills is already creating market confusion that discourages new families from moving to Connecticut and encourages existing families to leave. The specter of uncertainty hanging over Connecticut will continue damaging home values while these bills are considered and, subsequently, would continue their damage while families await the judgement of a government commission. The commission would operate with a rushed timeline and inadequate participation from the regions with the best schools.

SB 738, SB 457, and SB 874 hurt disadvantaged students the most.

At-risk students do better in smaller school districts. The optimal school size for disadvantaged students is elementary schools up to 300 students and high schools up to 600. Regionalization risks throwing them into environments where they are less likely to thrive. These are the students most likely to miss class and ultimately drop out of larger districts.  Larger districts are less connected with their local communities. Teachers are less involved. It is that teacher involvement that can make the difference between success and failure for disadvantaged students.

One size fits none.

Regionalization does not work–it failed in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont and it would fail in Connecticut. Regionalization’s high failure rate has been well documented in Improving Educational Opportunity and Equity through School District Consolidation in Maine, A Cost-Benefit Analysis of School Regionalization in Massachusetts, and Vermont School District Consolidation Case Study. All of the above facts are available in K-12 Regionalization in Connecticut:  Pros, Cons and Surprises. Unambiguously rejecting SB 738, SB 457, and SB 874 would save Connecticut from a fiscal, educational, and economic mistake that others have made but we can still avoid.

Hands Off Our Schools

Rejection would protect parents and teachers who want to maintain our strong voices within our local communities. Those voices have joined together to say “Hands Off Our Schools” in a growing movement made up of thousands upon thousands of families from every region of Connecticut, every background, and every walk of life. We are united by a desire to protect our local schools from the threats of SB 738, SB 457, and SB 874. We want to defeat these bills and then defeat the politicians who supported them. Why? Because we just want what’s best for our kids.

Not Just Opposed–We are Outraged

Dear Esteemed Leaders:

We are writing to express our absolute rejection and opposition to Senate Bill 738, “An Act Concerning the Creation of Regional School Districts.” As Wilton residents and the parents of two school children, we believe the bill’s premise, that consolidation will lead to greater financial efficiency within the school system, is not only incorrect and flawed, but disingenuous. Moreover, nothing in the text of the bill itself or the rationalizations provided by its advocates supports the conclusion that the bill will improve educational outcomes.

We chose to move to Wilton, and choose to stay, because of the quality of the public schools here. As the district is continually recognized as one of the top 1% in the nation, with the overwhelming majority of its students moving on to accredited higher education, we feel it is the best place for our daughters to learn and to prepare themselves for adult life. We accept that our property taxes, though egregiously high when coupled with state income tax rates, are a proxy for tuition. We appreciate that they are the price we pay for our children’s access to high quality education that is under sufficient local control to ensure it meets the needs of this community’s children. We feel certain that SB 738 will undermine if not destroy that essential local management and severely dilute the resources of Wilton schools, irreparably harming the quality of education here.

But then that may be the real aim of the Bill’s proponents. When considered in the context of SB 451, which would levy a devastating property tax increase on Fairfield County residents, one goal of the legislation becomes transparent: to pick the pockets of the residents of relatively affluent but small communities, to subsidize the educational budgets of underperforming schools in larger, less affluent communities. And the fact that the bill’s content deals largely with the consolidation of collective bargaining units betrays another real goal:  to strengthen the power of educational unions and inflate salaries. Perhaps less affluent communities need more school funding and perhaps educational salaries should be higher; but if so, then the Bill’s proponents should advocate for those things directly, and not shamelessly hide their motives behind laughingly dubious claims of administrative and fiscal efficiency.

These claims are laughable because, as Wilton School Superintendent Kevin Smith points out in his public letter of Jan. 29, numerous studies suggest that the benefits of consolidation are vastly overestimated. In fact, several conclude that they actually create negative impacts such as higher transportation costs, a “leveling up of salaries” (aha!), and more negative attitudes among staff members and parents. As neither the text of the bill nor its proponents’ rhetoric define specifically where or how it will actually achieve savings, we are beyond skeptical that that is really the bill’s purpose or what it can reasonably achieve. Rather, we feel it will only serve to punish hardworking people who happen to make decent incomes and seek to properly educate their children without going bankrupt.

As we hope is clear from this letter, we are not just opposed to SB 738; we are outraged by it. The bill would remove a primary rationale for our residence in this town; and along with the never-ending increases to various taxes, it would strongly encourage us to leave this state. We have no doubt that should SB 738 pass, many people in our position will vote with their feet, further eliminating any fantasy of fiscal rationale alleged for it. We demand that you as our elected representatives categorically reject this legislation, as it fundamentally threatens our community. Given the powerful vested interests who stand to gain from SB 738, and the outright dishonesty with which those interests are attempting to promote it, more than perfunctory opposition is needed from you.

Kind regards,

Janell and Len Federico