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Uphill climb for controversial school district consolidation bills

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State Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney has introduced a bill that would consolidate school districts in towns with a total population of less than 40,000 – legislation that would seem to be facing an uphill battle for passage.

SB 454’s stated purpose is “To create a more efficient educational system.”

Only 24 of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities have populations in excess of 40,000, meaning such towns as Bethel, Brookfield, Darien, New Canaan, Newtown, Ridgefield, Shelton, Trumbull, Westport and Wilton would be affected.

If passed, the consolidation plan would go into effect on July 1, 2021, if it had not been approved by the legislature and signed into law on or before July 1, 2020.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, who represents Norwalk and parts of Darien, and fellow Democratic Sen. Cathy Osten have submitted a bill that would “require any school district with a student population of fewer than 2,000 students to join a new or an existing regional school district so that the total student population of such new or expanded regional school district is greater 2,000 students.”

Both bills have been referred to the legislature’s Education Committee

Although he has not commented publicly on the bills, Gov. Ned Lamont’s support could be inferred from past remarks – including at his Jan. 9 address to the General Assembly upon taking office – about how he believes that communities could share services in a “regionalization” effort that would reduce overall costs.

Following his election but before he took office, Lamont received recommendations from an education committee that included requiring small school districts to consolidate or share services and establishing a minimum school district size that would be implemented over time.

Initial reaction from several Republicans and a number of Looney’s Democratic colleagues indicated that SB 454 faces an uphill climb if it is to be passed.

“It’s created a firestorm – you can just imagine the reaction,” said state Rep. Gail Lavielle, who represents Wilton. “(Looney) didn’t ask anyone else about it, he just introduced it.” If passed, she said, “It would have a major effect on real estate markets.”

Recently elected freshmen Democratic State Senators Will Haskell, whose district includes Wilton and Westport and Alex Bergstein (Greenwich) and Rep. Lucy Dathan (New Canaan) issued a statement saying they would not support the bill.

“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,” they said. “However, we cannot support SB 454 to regionalize our schools.”

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