Regionalization would combine central offices, not schools

A new bill proposed in the state Senate could have Ridgefield sharing a superintendent and school office with Redding, Bethel, and Newtown.
The bill, SB-454, would create a commission tasked with consolidating school districts of towns with fewer than 40,000 residents into regionalized districts.
But the bill’s author, state Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, said regionalization will not shutter schools or funnel students to other districts. It would only affect superintendents and other central office staff. 
“We would not, under this plan that I envision, be closing schools,” said Looney, a Democrat representing New Haven. “The savings would come in administrative consolidations and economies of scale in bulk purchases.”
According to Looney, consolidating districts would not only save money by cutting high-paid administrators — Ridgefield’s incoming superintendent Dr. William Collins will be paid $233,303 — but it would also give the regional district more leverage when it negotiates for services.
In an article published on the state Senate Republicans website Jan. 29, the bill’s opponents claimed it would combine Ridgefield’s student populations with Redding, Bethel, and Newtown, leading to “less time in the classroom and more time on the bus.”
Senate Republicans also raised concern the new schools would have to be built as part of regionalizing students.
But according to Looney, building new schools would still be up to local municipalities.
He admitted Ridgefield’s central offices and superintendent could be consolidated with Redding, Bethel, and Newtown as a result of the bill.
“I wouldn’t venture to opine on which specific towns should be combined with what others, but that could be one option,” Looney told The Press.
Under regionalized districts, Looney said state aid money would be “felt more efficiently” going to “students in the classroom … rather than being soaked up by the high administrative cost.” 
Town officials and lawmakers have so far appeared skeptical of the plan. 
“The whole intent, as they say, is about efficiency,” said Margaret Stamatis, chairwoman of the town Board of Education. 
“At a very high level, there could be economies of scales,” she said, but in Ridgefield those savings could be eaten up by unforeseen costs — including transportation.
Second bill
Looney’s bill is not the only effort to regionalize schools. A second bill, submitted by Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25), and Sen. Cathy Osten (D-19), would requires districts with fewer than 2,000 students “to join a new or an existing regional school district.”
Ridgefield’s district of a just under 5,000 students would likely be unaffected by that bill if it passed. 
“As far as I’m aware, that one does not affect us,” said Stamatis.
Lawmakers from Looney’s own party have already voiced opposition to regionalizing schools.
“We have deep respect for Senator Looney and are always open to discussing the difficult issues facing our state, including the issue of regionalization, because finding efficiencies in state spending is a priority for us. However, we cannot support SB 454 to regionalize our schools,” said state senators Will Haskell (D-26) and Alexandra Bergstein (D-36), and state Rep. Lucy Dathan (D-142) in a joint statement.
The state senators also said they are opposed to another bill submitted by Looney, which would create a statewide real estate tax, and replace municipal motor vehicle taxes with a statewide motor vehicle tax. 
The property tax increase “would be devastating to residents of Fairfield County,” said the three Democratic legislators, which would only encourage residents to leave the state.
Looney said the two bills to regionalize school districts and give the state more control over property taxes would present a “comprehensive approach to modernizing Connecticut government.”
He downplayed concerns about residents’ local identity. 
“[The] overall policy of the state has to move beyond hyper-localism,” he said. “I think in many cases that is a drawback, I think we should all think ourselves as citizens of Connecticut.”