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School regionalization bills draw ire at Capitol hearing

March 1, 2019

When it comes to proposals to require regionalization of smaller school districts, the resounding message at the state Capitol on Friday was, “Hey government: Leave our kids alone.”

More than 200 people signed up to address the Education Committee in a public hearing, and hundreds more submitted written testimony. On Friday afternoon, the Connecticut General Assembly website showed 714 pieces of submitted testimony on Senate Bill 738, and only two were marked as “in support.”

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, introduced this bill, which would realign towns with a population below 40,000 in a manner similar to the 54 probate districts in the state.

Senate Bill 457 — introduced by state Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, and Cathy Osten, D-Sprague — would require any school district with a student population below 2,000 to join a new or existing regional school district. Any such district that does not join a regional one would be required to explain the reasons for its decision in writing.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s bill, Senate Bill 874, would create a Commission on Shared School Services to develop a plan for redistricting or consolidation. It would have to report on preliminary recommendations on district sizes, the number of schools in a district and enrollment by Jan. 15, 2020, and report on projected cost savings by Dec. 1, 2020.

Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell said she is not in favor of forced regionalization, preferring an incentive approach to encourage shared services.

But it’s no longer “practical or feasible for the state to have over 200 independently operated school districts,” Wentzell said. Connecticut has 39 districts with only one school and an additional 35 with only two.

“Particularly in some parts of the state where the finances are stretched, the local municipality is unable to offer an elementary program that makes those students ready for high school,” she told the Education Committee.

Most of those who testified on the regionalization bills were opposed to all three or at least the two forced ones — and many had some colorful language.

Paul Passarelli addressed his email, “Dear Tyrants.” New Canaan resident Peter Accinno simply wrote, “Fire State Employees to Save Money and Leave Our Schools Alone.” William Organek of Higganum said he thinks “Democrats are hell-bent on ruining things for us at every turn.”

But many Democrats made clear they don’t support this, either. New Canaan resident Barbara Rucci said she convinced many of her Republican friends to vote Democratic last year but finds it “embarrassing and frustrating” that these bills are some of the first to come out.

“As a Democrat, I welcome discussion and action on poverty, racism, and educational disparity,” she wrote. “School consolidation is an idea from the past and it’s been studied and it does not work.”

Lilly Casiraghi, vice president of the Young Democrats Club at Wilton High School, spoke of how much her parents sacrificed — living in an expensive town — to keep her and her sisters in the school district.

“We should not be penalized because of our success, and we should not have to subsidize less efficient towns in any way,” she said.

Kathryn Preli said she paid more for her home in Suffield because she wanted her future children in its school system. Brandon Roder said the school quality in Weston is what keeps him there “despite the additional burden the property taxes bring.” John and Judith Sholtis of Old Lyme noted that Old Lyme’s taxes reflect the town’s commitment to the school system.

In a statement, Lyme-Old Lyme Public Schools said that forced regionalization “based on arbitrary enrollment and population numbers is foolish and short-sighted.” The statement said the idea this will save money has no merit, and expressed concerns about lengthy bus rides and loss of personal connections between students and teachers.

Sixth-grader Ava Gilbert told the committee that as a student identified as “talented and gifted,” she is getting the challenge she needs at Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School but fears she wouldn’t at a larger school.

What towns were represented in the conversation?

There appeared to be a coordinated opposition campaign out of Wilton, a Fairfield County town with a population of 18,062 as of the 2010 census.

The Day reviewed 500 of the pieces of written testimony that had been submitted before the start of the hearing, and found that at least 183 of them were written by Wilton residents.

The next most popular town of origin was New Canaan, with at least 46 people submitting testimony, and at least 34 from Ridgefield wrote in.

Wilton, New Canaan and Ridgefield are respectively ranked 16, 3 and 41 out of 202 school districts in the state. This is according to the state’s Next Generation Accountability System results — a 12-factor system that takes into account test scores, college and career readiness, and graduation rates  — for the 2017-18 school year, which were released last week.

New Canaan Public Schools, which has more than 4,000 students, had the highest score of any Connecticut school district that serves students in grades K-12.

Out of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns, these three towns rank in the top seven for average household income, according to the 2011-15 American Community Survey five-year estimates. Wildly underrepresented in testimony on Friday were parents from the districts that rank at the bottom, like Hartford, New London and Windham.

Other concerns raised over the governor’s bill

Multiple home-schooled students also spoke out against a provision in the governor’s bill not related to regionalization. It would require the parent of a home-schooled child to annually appear at the school district office and sign a form indicating the child would receive home instruction.

Officials from Norwich Free Academy also “vigorously oppose” segments of the 32-page governor’s bill regarding endowed high schools and academies.

The bill would require NFA’s board to include a representative selected by each board of education that sends more than 50 students there, and NFA’s budget would have to be reviewed by each board. The school also would be required to hold a public hearing on the budget, which it does not currently do.

“These provisions present an unprecedented, unnecessary level of oversight and government overreach upon a successful and transparently governed nonprofit providing outstanding educational services and exceptional value to NFA’s partners,” board Chairwoman Sarette Williams said in prepared testimony.

Day Staff Writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report.

e.moser@theday.com