Town Officials Offer Testimony Opposing Regionalization Bills

GOOD Morning Wilton has received the testimony regarding school regionalization that a handful of town officials have submitted to legislators in Hartford. In addition, we’ve gotten confirmation that Board of Education chair Christine Finkelstein and Superintendent Kevin Smith will be in Hartford to testify.

Testimony of Kevin J. Smith, Ph.D. Superintendent of Wilton Public Schools, In opposition SB 738, SB 457, Governor’s Bill 874 and Governor’s Bill 7150

Chairman McCrory, Chairman Sanchez and members of the Education Committee:

Please accept this testimony in opposition to bills 738, 457, 874 and 7150.

I am vehemently opposed to any bill, or any provision in any bill mandating forced regionalization. The Wilton Public Schools are the pride of the community and have a long and rich history of delivering a world class education at an affordable price. The residents of Wilton have invested significantly in their schools and consequently enjoy not only a very high graduation rate, but also a very high college completion rate. In 2018, 98% of the senior class graduated, and of that number nearly 65% were accepted to colleges and universities considered by Barrons as either Highly Selective or Most Selective. According to the most recent data from the National Clearing House, 84% of the class of 2012 that went on to college graduated within 6 years (compare that to a national average of 59%) – and the overwhelming majority of that number in four to five years. These indicators are simple yet powerful examples of the high quality of the Wilton Schools.

I offer those data points in question to the rationale for regionalization. The locally managed Wilton Schools serve our families exceptionally well. Nowhere in any of the proposed legislation is a suggestion that regionalization will improve educational outcomes for students. Indeed, there is no suggestion because there is no evidence to support such a claim. If the argument is not to improve schools but to save money, I suggest to you that empirical evidence in support of that claim is specious at best. In a 2011, National Education Policy Center brief, the authors argue, “Research on the effects of contemporary consolidation suggests that new consolidation is likely to result in neither greater efficiency nor better instructional outcomes— especially when it results from state policy that implements large-scale forced consolidation.”

I noted in Governor’s bill 874 a provision that gives the commissioner of education the ability to deduct from state aid the amount of a superintendent’s salary in municipalities that have 1-2 elementary schools and decline to utilize a superintendent from another district. Because of that, I reject the governor’s suggestion that his regionalization proposals are about carrots and not sticks. Years ago, wisely, Wilton built its school system to maximize efficiency. In 2010, Wilton actually combined its two primary schools into one. And though we have only 2 elementary schools, each house nearly 900 students; They are among the largest in the state. This structure enables us to economize administrative costs and provides tremendous benefits in terms of curriculum alignment and professional teacher support. The design of our district enables us to run some of the administratively leanest schools in our District Reference Group. The net impact of this provision in the Governor’s bill is to punish Wilton for having the foresight to build structures that maximize efficient operations.

We in Wilton understand the value of shared services. Since I have been superintendent, and Lynne Vanderslice has been First Selectwoman, we have worked cooperatively to establish shared service arrangements in our finance and facilities departments. The town and schools share a health insurance plan, and partake in cooperative purchasing arrangements. Later this year we will be consolidating our finance and payroll software and operating under a single EIN. That shift alone is going to save Wilton taxpayers thousands of dollars. While we share the desire to maximize the efficiency of our system, we reject a “one-size-fits-all” state mandate.

Concurrently, the education committee is entertaining legislation that would require municipalities to pay a portion of teacher pension benefits. This proposal should also be rejected. Municipalities had no control over decisions to design or fund the teacher pension plan. The decision to defer investment annually for years was not a local municipal decision. In fact, Wilton fully funds its annual required contributions for its own pension obligations. I urge the committee to reject Governor’s Bill 7150.

We share the legislature’s desire to reduce costs and maximize efficient school operations. The net impact of these bills if adopted will be a degraded school system that costs local taxpayers much more. I respectfully request that the education committee reject SB 738, SB 457 and Governor’s Bills 874 and 7150. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Kevin J. Smith, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Schools

Testimony of Christine Finkelstein, Wilton Board of Education Chair, In Opposition to SB 738, SB 457 and SB 874

Chairman McCrory, Chairman Sanchez and members of the Education Committee:

On behalf of the Wilton Board of Education, I am pleased to submit the following remarks in opposition to SB 738, SB 457 and SB 874, which collectively call for forced regionalization of school services and/or school districts.

Let me begin with a few words about the Wilton community, and the important role of the Wilton Public Schools in our town. Quite simply, the Wilton Public Schools are the backbone of our community. Our semi-rural town does not have a beach, or a large commercial district, or major entertainment venues. We have our schools. A survey conducted in 2018 by the Wilton Board of Finance found more than 80 percent of residents said they chose to move to Wilton because of our high-quality schools.

Our community supports the schools in myriad ways, including strong attendance at Wilton Warrior athletic events, theatre productions that regularly perform to sold-out audiences, and our celebrated Warrior marching band, which performs annually at our Holiday Tree Lighting and Memorial Day Parade.

Most important, of course, community members support our schools with their tax dollars. Funding for the Wilton Schools accounts for 65 percent of our overall town budget. In recent years, as the state legislature has reduced – in some cases eliminated – Wilton’s share of education cost sharing (ECS) funding, our residents have been asked to dig even deeper, and shoulder costs previously paid through our state tax revenues.

The Wilton community is heavily invested in our schools and as such, our Board of Education is held to the highest levels of fiscal responsibility. Residents scrutinize every line in our budget, and hold us accountable for every penny. We are questioned every budget cycle about administrative staffing, class sizes, special education services, and many other factors that affect spending.

Every year we have the discussion, both internally and with town residents, about whether we have done enough to look for cost savings opportunities. “Aren’t there ways,” the line of questioning goes, “that we can find synergies with neighboring districts, opportunities to share services and reduce costs?”

The answer is the same every year: Where it makes sense for our students and our town, we will enter into shared service arrangements both within our town and with other districts.

I can cite several examples where we have realized efficiencies with our own Board of Selectmen, including:

  • Elimination of two central office positions, the Wilton Public Schools director of finance and director of facilities, in favor of sharing personnel who perform similar services for our town.
  • Partnering with the town for additional efficiencies in fuel and electricity purchases, medical claims administration and property and liability insurance costs.
  • Most recently we are transitioning to a common financial software system, which will facilitate payments and recordkeeping, among other efficiencies.

And we have looked beyond Wilton’s borders for opportunities to share costs with neighboring and regional school districts. Recent examples include:

  • We regularly engage in ride-sharing arrangements with neighboring towns to send students to regional programs that provide special education services that are not available in the Wilton Public Schools. This allows us to economize on transportation and avoid having to hire staff, or incur professional service costs to provide these services ourselves.
  • Wilton high school students have the opportunity to participate in programs of study offered by regional schools, as a way to pursue academic interests through initiatives not offered at Wilton High School. These venues include:
    1. The Center for Global Studies, which is located at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk
    2. The Academy for the Performing Arts, located in Trumbull, at the regional CES facility
    3. The Academy of Information Technology & Engineering, based in Stamford
    4. Henry Abbott Technical High School, located in Danbury, and
    5. J.M. Wright Technical High School located in Stamford

My final example is a good illustration of how our attempt to voluntarily find efficiencies now puts us at risk of being adversely affected by the legislation currently under review.

Until a few years ago, Wilton maintained three elementary schools. This included two Pre-K/2 schools that shared the same campus, as well as a separate 3-5 school. The two Pre-K/2 schools maintained separate principals and administrative teams, and also had their own unique cultures.

But in 2010, as student enrollment began to shift, and the effects of the economic recession took hold, we as a town made the decision to combine our two schools. It was a decision made by the town of Wilton, because it made sense for our community.

Now though, we stand to be penalized for this efficiency. Because we now have just two elementary schools, a provision in SB 874 would require us to share a superintendent with a neighboring district. Or, if we insist on keeping our own superintendent, that administrator’s salary would be deducted from our state funding. It seems the author of this legislation has decided that we should have three elementary schools, not two.

If we had three schools, we would not be in this position. But since we as a town chose to pursue this efficiency, we are at risk of being penalized.

Clearly this makes no sense, and is a clear example of the danger of a “one size fits all” solution.

I cite these examples to demonstrate that the concept of shared services is certainly not new to Wilton, and that we already work both within our town and with neighboring districts to identify opportunities for cost efficiency.

Shared services are in everyone’s interest, but only when they make sense for the affected communities.

While we can appreciate the state legislature’s need to reduce costs, we urge you to tread very cautiously in tinkering with our system of locally-built-and-managed school districts. School districts exist to educate and nurture a community’s children, and this responsibility must never be seen as negotiable.

As we are fond of saying in the Wilton schools, we have one chance to do right by our students. A student passes through our schools just once, meaning we have no room for error. Dismantling the Wilton Public Schools would impose grievous harm to the students in our community, as it would to students in all affected districts.

I urge you to reject all efforts – SB 738, SB 457 and SB874 – which look to mandate school consolidation or regionalization.

Thank you for your consideration.

Deborah Low, Wilton Board of Education Member–Testimony Regarding SB 454/738

I am writing to testify against SB 454/738. As a current Wilton Board of Education member, a retired Superintendent of Schools (Ridgefield), and a long-term Wilton resident and taxpayer, I oppose SB 454/738 for many reasons:

  1. People move to Wilton because of our schools. The schools are the heart of our community. As residents, we have known this anecdotally but it was recently affirmed in a professionally designed, statistically valid survey of residents initiated by our Board of Finance. SB 454/738 through forced school regionalization would destroy our tradition, identity, and reputation.
  2. The Wilton Public School district is a high performing district with an excellent faculty, quality programs, engaged students, involved parents, and a supportive community. We have built a reputation over the past decades for educational excellence. SB 454/738 does nothing to improve the quality of our schools and instead threatens it. There is no research to demonstrate improved educational outcomes or significant savings by forced regionalization or consolidation of districts our size.
  3. With a Town meeting form of government, the school budget goes out to referendum annually. Each year the budget is scrutinized, questioned, criticized, etc. by town Boards and at public hearings before going directly to the voters. There is strong community oversight of every local tax dollar spent. In recent years, the school budget increases have been extremely low. SB 454/738 could not improve on that.
  4. Wilton schools and the town have worked together to find efficiencies and savings. Recently, the school business manager position and the town finance officer position have been combined into one position. In addition, the school facilities director has been combined with the town facility director. The town and schools have also invested in solar power for long-term energy savings. SB 454/738 provides only forced regionalization as a one-size-fits-all approach and does so without any research base. The bill completely omits research into other states (or case studies from anywhere) of successful voluntary cost savings measures between districts.

Here are some alternative ideas:

  1. Consider administering state testing every other year rather than annually. Connecticut used to do this. It would save money and increase instructional time. As an educator, I don’t think thatextensive state testing data needs to be generated every year. Alternating years is sufficient to improve programming and monitor student progress, especially when considering the local assessments administered to students. I understand testing is federally mandated, but why not build the case for a waiver.
  2. Support the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) priority to “Remove barriers and support incentives for voluntary interdistrict collaboration that provide efficiencies and program enhancements through shared services.” One example–each district licenses student information and special education software, perhaps set up a state purchasing plans to bring down costs. The same could be done for hardware. Another area would be to assist districts in structuring consolidated bids for bus transportation.
  3. Conduct research into other states’ successful voluntary cost-savings strategies between school districts and their impact on educational outcomes.

I understand, as most Connecticut residents do, that we are in a state fiscal crisis. I also understand that cost-saving proposals will always have their critics. However, SB 454/738 exemplifies the worst approach possible by forcing a wrong-headed, damaging, unproven, one-size fits all strategy on what is most precious and successful in Wilton – our schools.

Sincerely,

Deborah Low
Wilton Board of Education member
former Ridgefield Public Schools Superintendent (retired)
Long-time Wilton resident

Deborah Low, Wilton BOE Member–Testimony Opposing SB 874

Senator Robert Sanchez and Senator Douglas McCrory, Co-Chairs, Education Committee And Members of the Education Committee,

I am writing to testify against SB 874. As a current Wilton Board of Education member, a retired Superintendent of Schools (Ridgefield), and a long-term Wilton resident and taxpayer, I oppose SB 874.

In local press conferences and meetings with elected officials, SB 874 has been presented as seeking voluntary backoffice efficiencies and some administrative restructuring and sharing in very small districts through incentives.

However, after reading the actual language in SB 874, I conclude that the bill is instead much more threatening. Here are my concerns:

  1. People move to Wilton because of our schools. The schools are the heart of our community. As residents, we have known this anecdotally but it was recently affirmed in a professionally designed, statistically valid survey of residents initiated by our Board of Finance. SB 874 undermines our tradition and identity when it forms a commission to“study consolidation of school services and school districts.”
  2. Most alarming is the language in the bill calling for a report from the commission in January, 2020, asking for preliminary recommendations about district sizes, district types, number of schools, total number of districts, and enrollment in districts (lines 85 to 92). This sounds like potential reorganization of all or most school districts in the state. It is not a stretch to conclude that forced regionalization could be the objective. This language in SB 874 could bring chaos and division across our state.
  3. The Wilton Public School district is a high performing district with an excellent faculty, quality programs, engaged students, involved parents, and a supportive community. We have built a reputation over the past decades for educational excellence. SB 874 does nothing to improve the quality of our schools; instead it undermines it with the specter of regionalization. Or, if we escape regionalization, then there is the possibility of having to revise our governance structure. For example, the bill contains language about which districts would be penalized (reduced state funding) for having their own superintendent. Criteria include districts with two or fewer elementary schools,
    which means Wilton. The irony is that Wilton employs a campus model (one centralized school for all students within a grade span) which is very efficient.
  4. The language in SB 874 about shared services and back office efficiencies is something Wilton is already doing. Wilton schools and the town have worked together to find efficiencies and savings. Recently, the school business manager position and the town finance officer position have been combined into one position. In addition, the school facilities director has been combined with the town facility director. Our town and schools also have invested in solar power for long-term energy savings. We will continue to examine efficiencies and shared services.
  5. SB 874 is not thoughtful. SB 874 does not describe researching other states for models of successful voluntary cost savings strategies between school districts. SB 874 does not speak about improved educational outcomes.

Here are some other ideas:

  1. Consider administering state education testing every other year rather than annually. Connecticut used to do this. It would save money and increase instructional time. As an educator, I don’t think that extensive state testing data needs to be generated every year. Alternating years is sufficient to improve programming and monitor student progress, especially when considering the local assessments administered to students. I understand testing is federally mandated, but Connecticut could build a case for a waiver. It would surely be easier than the uproar created by any forced regionalization.
  2. Support the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) priority to “Removebarriers and support incentives for voluntary interdistrict collaboration that provide efficiencies and program enhancements through shared services.” One example – each district licenses student information and special education software so perhaps set up state or RESC purchasing plans to bring down costs. The same could be done for hardware. SB 874 contains language about looking at bus transportation. It would be worthwhile to investigate assisting districts in structuring consolidated transportation bids.
  3. Research other states as to successful voluntary cost-savings strategies between school districts and their impact on educational outcomes.

I understand, as most Connecticut residents do, that Connecticut is in a fiscal crisis. I also understand that cost-saving proposals will always have critics. However, SB 874 as written is troubling and threatening to what is most precious and successful in Wilton – our schools.

Sincerely,
Deborah Low
Wilton Board of Education member
former Ridgefield Public Schools Superintendent (retired)
Long-time Wilton resident

Testimony of John Kalamarides, Board of Finance Member

To Senator Douglas McCrory and Representative Robert Sanchez, Education Committee Chairs and Committee Members:

I write in strong opposition to bills SB 457, SB 738, and the Governor’s bill 874.

As a member of the Wilton Board of Finance and as the former Wilton Democratic Town [Committee] Chair, I find these bills to be totally off base from everything we are trying to do to bring the best of education to our students in the most efficient and cost-effective way and to make Wilton an attractive community for people to move to and stay. To consider forced regionalization according to probate districts is ridiculous.

These bills have created at first shock, then anger, then defiance, and then outrage among our residents. Our schools are the reason that 81% of people move to Wilton, we have proven in a recent survey conducted by the Board of Finance. If our schools are threatened, people interested in moving here will go elsewhere. Our realtors are seeing prospects turn away. Already many of my peers have stated that they fear their property values would fall greatly. Property values have not risen according to our most recent revaluation. Others would move away before they would give up local control of the schools.

These bills state the goal of regionalization is cost saving, efficiency, and cooperation between school districts. We do all this now in Wilton. The finance departments for the Town and the School have been merged under one director. The Town facilities manager is also the facilities manager for the schools, as well as director of the DPW. We share a high school girls hockey team with Norwalk. Our school superintendent has planned an alternative high school that our Board of Finance reviewed and the Board of Education has just approved that will save Wilton upwards of $400,000 the first year by keeping certain SPED students here rather than placing them in special and distant schools for their needs. We would like to see more opportunities for voluntary cooperation along the lines of the 10-158A statute.

As a Board of Finance member on the Business Operations Committee of the Board of Education, I work closely with the BOE members and the superintendent to ensure that there is no waste in our school budget and that we make the most effective use of funds. Our BOF has this year put together and produced with the schools a series of metrics to measure the effectiveness of our school system. As a member of the Long-Range Planning Committee of the Schools, I know the lengths our schools and residents go to make our schools efficient and effective.

We in Wilton are very proud of our schools, their reputation among the best in the State, and their many graduates who go on to successful lives and careers. My three children are graduates of Wilton schools.

These bills have created the strongest issue and reaction that I have ever seen in my 36 years in Wilton. Friday, March 1, you will have hundreds of Wiltonians at your hearing to tell you that these bills are not the way forward.

Please kill these bills now.

Sincerely yours,

John J. Kalamarides, Jr.