Small-town residents by the hundreds let their opposition to forced school regionalization be known at the state Capitol on Friday, jamming email in-boxes and four legislative hearing rooms.
Long before a 1 p.m. Education Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly began at the Legislative Office Building, more than 1,000 pieces of written testimonies were filed in opposition to three bills linked to Gov. Ned Lamont’s call for a task force to study consolidation efforts.
A line snaked through the LOB rotunda to sign up to speak at the afternoon hearing. Many carried signs or badges that read “Hands off Our Schools.”
More than 200 people signed up to speak. Most were against regionalization, but a number of students and parents — many dressed in red — were there to strongly oppose a provision of Lamont’s bill that would require homeschoolers to register annually with their local school district.
“Please vote no,” urged Olivia Tumenschelt, 12, one of the homeschooled kids.
A proposed shift of teacher pension also costs didn’t go unnoticed.
“This proposal represents one of the largest property tax increases in modern history, as it would shift a combined $73 million directly on to Connecticut property taxpayers,” testified Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
The bulk of the hearing, however, belong to those opposed to efforts to compel districts to merge.
A tough sell
Lamont’s plan calls on school districts to explore ways to share administrative and office costs that he said would be better spent in classrooms.
An appearance by Lamont earlier in the week in Weston — during which he assured area first selectmen that his push would be with “carrots, not sticks” — did not quell the concern.
“It will kill this Connecticut town,” Andrea Bates, of Wilton, wrote in her testimony.
At a news conference before the public hearing, state Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said the bills do nothing to preserve or improve education.
“These bills hit a nerve with people all over the state,” Lavielle said. “The opposition has been visceral.”
Joining her was House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, who said the resistance is not against regionalization, but forcing it on municipalities.
“I think there are natural connections we can have,” she said.
She and others pointed to 47 towns that already regionalize services or districts.
Lavielle said she would support legislation that removed barriers to more school district sharing — such as changes to the state’s binding arbitration laws.
“Changes, not elimination,” she clarified, of binding arbitration laws that govern teacher contract negotiations.
More than 3,500 pieces of testimony were submitted on the bill, all in opposition, Lavielle said, hoisting a petition she said contained more than 8,000 signatures.
Written testimony came from all over the state, including a good chunk from residents of Wilton, New Canaan, Ridgefield and other Fairfield County communities.
Senate Bill 738, submitted by state Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, proposes to force municipalities with populations smaller than 40,000 to consolidate if they are not already regionalized.
Another bill, sponsored by Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, focuses on districts with 2,000 students or fewer.
Lamont’s proposal calls for the establishment of a Commission of Shared School Services that would spend two years studying the issue.
All three bills heard by the committee emphasize voluntary efforts though Lamont’s plan seeks to subtract state funding from small school districts that don’t take steps to at least share school superintendents.
Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell told the education committee her department supports Lamont’s call for more shared school services, emphasizing she was not in favor of forced regionalization.
“The governor’s bill uses an incentive approach,” Wentzell testified. “with almost no sticks.”
She said 39 districts in the state have just one school.
“In some of these very small districts, the kids are getting shortchanged,” Wentzell said.
Melissa McCaw, Lamont’s budget director, testified the commission was all about collecting data — in a somewhat aggressive fashion — that could then be used to make decisions.
She added that she would not read too much into the word “redistricting,” mentioned a couple of times in the bill language.
Duff, meanwhile, said he is not out to close or consolidate schools, bus kids long distances or remove local control.
“We’re ... facing a significant budget deficit this year,” he said, “and though we’re not going to solve it through any single policy prescription, it’s our responsibility as legislators to pursue opportunities to encourage efficiencies.”
“We need bold things in the state of Connecticut,” said state Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, who co-chaired the committee.
McCrory said that while people talk about Connecticut’s great education system, “right now, we are not great.”
Siding with him was state Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, and Madeline Farrell, a UConn senior who earlier in the day told the committee she got short-changed going to a small high school in Westbrook with few of the extracurricular activities a bigger district might have provided.
Others challenged efforts they say will erode the quality and character of local schools, and in turn, towns.
Steve Brooks, of Darien, called the proposals a heavy-handed bureaucratic measure that would weaken public education.
Lonnie de Marco, of New Canaan, said good, small schools is keeping her in the state.
“If they become regionalized via a mandate from the state, I fear that new families will stop moving to Connecticut and those of us who are currently taking advantage of the localized schools will move away,” de Marco said.
Quality would suffer, cautioned Lynne Edwards, of the Sandy Hook section of Newtown.
Olga Konykhov, of Darien, described herself as appalled by the proposal.
“Dismantling our school system in the desperate attempt to balance the (state) budget is painfully irresponsible, outrageous and morally wrong,” Konykhov wrote.