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Lamont pledges his school regionalization plan is all about carrots, not sticks

February 27, 2019

WESTON — Gov. Ned Lamont emerged from a closed door meeting with a dozen Fairfield County municipal leaders on Tuesday, pledging that he is not out to force on anyone his plans for regionalization of some school operations.

“I am a believer of shared services but my plan uses ... a carrot, not a stick,” Lamont insisted. “I am not using anything to force any of the folks here to give up local control they have over their own schools.”

The bipartisan group of first selectmen — and some school superintendents — seemed happy to just have had an audience with a governor who heard them out.

“We didn’t agree on everything,” Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, a Republican, said. Still, she called it a great discussion.

“Having the governor here, listening to us is critically important,” Stevenson said.

“It is not something I expected,” Monroe First Selectman Ken Kellogg added.

Kellogg was encourage to hear Lamont is not out to force Monroe’s 3,200 student school district to merge with anyone and satisfied he got to vent about the $1 million impact the governor’s proposed budget would have on Monroe’s budget in the next fiscal year between reduced grants and the expectation that it will pay into teacher retirements.

“This is a budget I have already presented to the town council,” Kellogg said.

The roundtable was hosted at Weston Town Hall by First Selectman Chris Spaulding and arranged by freshman state Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport. Others participants came from Easton, Redding, Wilton, Monroe, Darien, Westport, Fairfield and Trumbull.

The meeting comes ahead of a public hearing set for Friday at 1 p.m. on Lamont’s bill before the state Legislature’s education committee. Already, more than 100 letters in opposition to the plans have been submitted.

Lamont said he came to clarify his proposal, calling it a win-win for the state, municipalities and taxpayers by creating greater efficiencies.

There are 169 municipalities, 206 school districts, and 1,493 public schools in Connecticut.

“That is costing us a fortune,” Lamont said.

He wants to establish a Commission on Shared School Services which would begin developing plans for the sharing or consolidation of some school services and school districts with municipalities and school districts that chooses to participate. Incentives would be offered for districts that, for instance, shared superintendents or back office services such as Information Technology. One carrot would be getting priority when it comes to state bonding.

But Lamont’s plan would also threatens to withhold funding for some costs for districts who resist efforts to economize.

“It that is heavy handed we will do it another way,” Lamont said. At the end of the day, he said his aim is to make sure kids get the best education with the least amount of inefficiencies.

Haskell, who arranged the session, said he is all for incentivize small districts to spend their dollars more efficiently and directing them toward the classrooms.

“But offer a pathway,” Haskell said, adding he let the governor know he opposes anything that would force districts to merge, particularly municipalities like the ones he represents who contribute so much to state coffers.

Lamont told reporters after the hour long session that he has no intention to force anyone to do anything.

His plan to make municipalities to start sharing in the cost of teacher pensions — something his predecessor, Gov. Malloy, tried and failed to pass — also got push back.

Lamont’s plan calls for all districts to contribute something. Districts that pay their teachers more than the state median would contribute more.

“It’s a big hit,” said Spaulding of the pension shift. “My message was that I understand that there is shared sacrifice but I want him to understand the particular impact of all the parts of his budget.”

Spaulding said the governor listened and was receptive to what he was told.

Fairfield First Selectman Michael Tetreau, who was also at the roundtable, said he’s never seen a governor come down and meet with first selectman like this.

“It’s great,” he said. While there wasn’t total agreement Tetreau said ideas were exchanged. He called it a change in tone and process from past administration.

Wilton First Selectman Lynne A. Vanderslice she was pleased that she was promised the chance to sit with the governor’s staff to fix errors she saw in the drafted bill.

Trumbull First Selectman Vicki A. Tesoro said she got a similar pledge when she told the governor about her concern with combined Education Cost Sharing formula cuts and new pension costs which will mean a $1.2 million hit to Trumbull’s budget.

“He listened and said he would get back to me,” Tesoro said.

“I need to convince them that my word is good,” Lamont said.

lclambeck@ctpost.com; twitter/lclambeck