Give schools taxing power? Officials have concerns

What if school districts were independent fiscal authorities, with budgeting and taxing powers separate from municipal finance boards, mayors and selectmen? A bill before the legislature proposes just that, and is drawing concern from local officials.
“Oh yeah. It showed up over the weekend,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said of ‘HB-7319, An Act Concerning The Fiscal Independence Of School Districts.’ 
“This bill is concerning for a lot of us,” he said.
The bill would require local and regional school districts with fewer than 15,000 students — Ridgefield’s school system is about a third that size — to become taxing authorities, separate from any municipality.
“By creating this fiscal independence, it allows a Board of Education to set a mill rate — to do everything the municipality now does, for education services only,” Marconi said. 
Marconi isn’t the only one worried. A vocal opponent is Wilton State Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143).
“The bill would basically turn Boards of Education in Connecticut into independent taxing districts,” Lavielle said. “...Creation of independent school taxing districts would diminish the role residents play in the determination and allocation of funding of their schools.” 
The legislation would be applicable to Ridgefield, Wilton and the schools in many other towns and cities— basically all local and regional school districts in the state, except for five: Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Waterbury and Stamford.
Among the concerns raised by opponents of the bill are:

  • It gives the new school taxing districts the power to assess, levy, and collect taxes on all property for the purpose of providing educational services. 

  • It also gives school districts the power to borrow money and issue bonds.

  • School districts would also gain the power to appropriate funds for the purpose of providing educational services.

  • The bill would also withdraws from towns and cites the powers it gives to school districts — to assess, levy, and collect taxes; borrow money; and appropriate funds for the purpose of providing educational services.

“With every school district becoming an independent school taxing district, there would no longer be any municipal oversight over the finances of school districts,” Lavielle said.
The bill is scheduled for a public hearing Friday, March 15. Anyone interested in submitting testimony may send it by email to PDtestimony @ and include the bill number in the email subject line and body of the email. The email should also contain the name and town of the person submitting the testimony.
Marconi, who is now the president of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST), said he is having the group’s board members polled to see if they want to take a position on the bill. The membership of COST is about 110 chief elected officials of different Connecticut towns, and about 20 of them are on the board.
“COST will be surveying the Board of Directors,” Marconi said. “It’s in our bylaws any time a position on a bill is given, it has to be reviewed by the board of directors.”
The bill comes in the context of numerous other proposals relating to how schools are run in the state, including some that raised fears of regionalization of schools — or some aspects of school administration — that had triggered vehement opposition.
“I don’t understand it. It’s not the governor’s bill,” Marconi said. “The governor submitted his bill and we continue to work on striking language such as ‘ regionalization ’ and another phrases — ‘consolidation of school districts.’ We are not opposed to the establishment of a commission on shared school services — that’s the biggest part of the governor’s bill.”
Not the education committee
The bill on schools’ fiscal independence is being introduced by the legislature’s Planning and Development Committee — not notably, the Education Committee. 
“From what I understand, an attempt was made by a single legislator to get it into the Education Committee, but it was not accepted, so they have proposed it to the Planning Committee, who have accepted it,” Marconi said.
Marconi wasn’t sure what the bill’s sponsors hoped to accomplish with it, but he said there were some interesting theories and a range of reactions to the bill.
“There are some who feel that this discussion should take place because it will provide clarity for the voters on exactly what education is costing the taxpayer,” Marconi said.
There were reports, he said, that the bill might be opposed by the state teachers union, the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), and the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE).
Marconi himself was skeptical of legislation so dramatically changing how schools are financed and operated.
“Of all the issues the State of Connecticut has, that we hear about all the time, one thing is we’ve been fortunate enough to maintain a high quality of education, and that has been an attraction to many people who are transferring into the greater New York area,” Marconi said. “And I’m confused as to why the legislature wants to begin toying with this issue now. There are many, many, many things that need to be fixed, that can keep them busy, without touching education.”
Patty Gay of The Wilton Bulletin contributed to this story.