At their Jan. 31 meeting, the members of Wilton’s Board of Education unanimously voted to approve a letter written to the co-chairs of the CT’s legislative Education Committee, urging them to stop pursuing forced regionalization for CT schools. The measure will be considered by the state legislators as part of the current session of the CT General Assembly thanks to a bill proposed by Sen. Martin Looney.
The bill, SB 738 (formerly SB 454) calls for schools in communities with fewer than 40,000 residents to consolidate with other districts along probate court lines. The proposal has faced widespread opposition, most strongly in Wilton, which has begun organizing efforts to try to stop the bill–and others like it–in its tracks.
The Wilton BOE letter expresses “strong opposition” and calls the mandate to regionalize an “egregious violation of local authority” that would “irrevocably harm the education of thousands of students across our state.”
The letter also describes the economic damage it would cause to Wilton, with a core investment in its school district over other town amenities: “Forcing our district to consolidate with another district–a district that would have its own unique characteristics and priorities–would essentially blow-up the pillar of our community, to no good end.” It also asserts that steps to regionalize would cause “grievous harm” to students in Wilton and other districts around the state.
The BOE calls any effort to “tinker” in a community’s right and responsibility to build and manage its school district something that is “never … negotiable.”
The complete text of the letter is below. It follows a previous public statement from Board chair Christine Finkelstein and letter to legislators from Wilton Schools’ superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith.
January 31, 2019
Senator Douglas McCrory
Representative Robert Sanchez
Co-Chairmen, Education Committee
Connecticut State Legislature
Legislative Office Building, Room 3100
Hartford, CT 06106
Dear Senator McCrory and Representative Sanchez:
We write to express our strong opposition to SB 454 which, in its proposed form will force the regionalization of school districts among many Connecticut communities, including Wilton.
We believe any attempt by the legislature to mandate school district consolidation is an egregious violation of local authority, that would irrevocably harm the education of thousands of students across our state.
Here in Wilton, the Wilton Public Schools are the backbone of our community. Our semi-rural community 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, we are 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.
As such, our board of education continually looks for opportunities to control costs, including consolidation of services with nearby districts. And where it makes sense, we have taken advantage of opportunities to reduce costs through shared services.
What emerges then, from our annual school operating budget discussion, is the town of Wilton’s approval of a school district that meets the needs of our community. Forcing our district to consolidate with another district – a district that would have its own unique characteristics and priorities – would essentially blow-up the pillar of our community, to no good end.
Research consistently demonstrates that students perform better, and feel more acclimated in smaller-sized districts. [Education Finance and Policy, vol. 2, issue 4, 341-375]
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.
As chairs of the Education Committee, we respectfully urge you to oppose SB 454, and all other attempts to force school regionalization. Instead, we hope the committee and the legislature will explore less radical approaches to identifying cost savings.
Wilton Public Schools Board of Education
Christine Finkelstein, Chair
Laura Schwemm, Vice Chair
Lory Rothstein, Secretary