Sen. Looney: Just Kidding

SB-738, the notorious school regionalization bill sponsored by State Senator Martin Looney, set off a firestorm of public outrage. It was designed to do just that.

This according to Senator Looney.

Appearing before the legislature’s Education Committee on March 1, the senator told legislators that his proposal to create a commission to mandate school district consolidation was only meant to be a “placeholder for a more detailed commission” and was intended to be incendiary.

Having accomplished its purpose, the bill, which was not actually drafted, now appears to be largely irrelevant in view of the governor’s fully-drafted plan.

Mr. Looney insisted his bill was not a proposal “to regionalize schools which would result in massive school closures or busing students far from their homes, which is the alarm that has been raised by some.” He said it was aimed at “creating efficiencies in central office administration” and was, like most proposals early in a legislative session, only a “concept bill.”

Representative Gail Lavielle, who represents parts of Wilton, Norwalk, and Westport, suggested the senator’s description was inconsistent with the bill’s actual contents. Why, she wondered, would a concept bill contain “an absolute mission” to consolidate, replicating the probate model, with a specific date for implementation even without the legislature’s approval? “Why are those precise things in a concept bill?” she asked.

“Because those precise things are what drew attention to the bill,” said Senator Looney. “The purpose of the bill was to begin a discussion. Vaguer terms would not have served that purpose.”

The senator later told Representative Eric Berthel that he wanted to “create a sense of urgency. We have been discussing regionalism for years and years without making any progress.”

The Governor’s Bill

The governor’s bill contains no mandates. It mainly proposes incentives for small districts that share services. It is described as carrots versus sticks, although some of the carrots appear to be made of wood.

A commission would be created to identify districts where opportunities exist to save money by sharing services with other districts or with municipalities.

One incentive for districts that avail themselves of those opportunities would be a higher priority for school construction bond funding. A carrot.

Another incentive for tiny districts that agree to share superintendents and back office operations would be to continue receiving their full education cost sharing grants. So, the carrot in this case is that the State won’t hit those districts with a stick.

What it Means to Weston

The governor’s proposal would likely have little or no impact on Weston or surrounding towns.

Weston receives relatively little in education cost sharing funds, so nothing much could be taken away. Construction assistance is based on financial need, using formulas where Weston falls so close to the bottom that bonus points probably wouldn’t move the needle. For those practical reasons, as the governor put it, in Weston “nothing has to change.”

In terms of public perception, Governor Lamont’s bill has two things working against it. One is that it has been lumped in with Senator Looney’s “concept” of mandated regionalization, and so is guilty by association, facts notwithstanding.

The other is the “slippery slope,” the belief that just studying shared services would open the door to a loss of local control. The argument has the advantage of being difficult to refute, since it is usually impossible to prove that something won’t happen.

The Hearing

The Education Committee’s hearing ran almost ten hours with testimony from scores of students, educators, legislators, town officials, associations, and citizens.

Many of the citizens testifying, and most of the students, were from Wilton, where Senator Looney’s bill caused alarm that the school district would be forced to merge with Norwalk’s, as the two towns share a probate district.

In another topic, a number of students and parents from various areas testified in opposition to a component of the governor’s bill that would require families home-schooling children to register with a local school and conform to the district’s curriculum. Many argued this is unfairly burdensome and that the local curriculum is inferior to what students are learning at home.

Testimony from education and town officials tended to illustrate the complexity of everything about shared school services.

Senator Will Haskell, who spoke against any form of mandatory regionalization, yielded most of his time to Bethel’s superintendent of schools, Dr. Christine Carver, who described Bethel’s existing efforts to reduce costs by sharing services, efforts hampered by labor contracts and State regulations. Other superintendents shared similar experiences and pleaded for legislative relief.

”At What Cost?”

On the other side of the coin, Daniel Syme, First Selectman of the town of Scotland, illustrated the frustration faced by some leaders of very small towns in dealing with very small school districts whose decisions and spending are not subject to town influence.

It is often claimed that no studies exist supporting the proposition that sharing services would save money. Mr. Syme cited one. It was conducted in Scotland’s region by Milone & MacBroom, the respected consulting firm that counts Weston among its clients.

According to Mr. Syme, the study showed that Scotland and surrounding towns, which already share schools, could achieve “huge savings” by consolidating school administration. Three part-time superintendents would be replaced by one, four back office functions would become one.

The plan was rejected by the districts. Mr. Syme said one official told him “you can’t touch us, we’re statutorily protected.” Mr. Syme said a former superintendent rejected his suggestion that money saved could be used to improve education outcomes, because doing so would only reduce how much the district gets from the State.

“Everybody wants to protect their school,” said Mr. Syme, “but at what cost?” He urged the committee to explore statutory changes that would provide a system of checks and balances between municipalities and school districts.

The Net

Two things are abundantly clear.

First, the governor is determined to close the looming $1.6 billion budget deficit. Part of that requires controlling spiralling education costs, and some of it involves pushing teacher pension fund costs down to towns.

Second, leaders in the legislature have clearly lost patience with minnow school systems, like the one described by Mr. Syme, that spend excessively on administration, at least in the State’s view (and Mr. Syme’s).

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