Wilton Bulletin -- Gov. Ned Lamont emerged from a closed-door meeting with a dozen Fairfield County municipal leaders on Tuesday, pledging 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 have 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 said he was encouraged 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 effect the governor’s proposed budget would have on Monroe’s budget in the next fiscal year, because of reduced grants and the expectation the town will contribute to the teacher retirement fund.
“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, saying it would be a win-win for the state, municipalities and taxpayers because it would create greater efficiencies.
Connecticut has 169 municipalities, 206 school districts, and 1,493 public schools.
“That is costing us a fortune,” Lamont said.
He wants to establish a Commission on Shared School Services that would begin developing plans for the sharing or consolidation of some school services and school districts with municipalities and school districts that choose 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 participants getting priority when it comes to state bonding.
But Lamont’s plan threatens to withhold funding for some costs for districts who resist efforts to economize.
“If 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 children get the best education with the least amount of inefficiencies.
Haskell, who arranged the session, said he is all for incentivizing 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 that contribute so much to state coffers.
Lamont told reporters after the hour-long session he has no intention of forcing anyone to do anything.
His plan to make municipalities to "start sharing in the cost of teacher pensions — something his predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, tried and failed to get approved — also got pushback.
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,” Weston’s Spaulding said 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 has never seen a governor come down and meet with first selectmen 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 administrations.
Wilton First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice she was pleased she was promised the chance to sit with the governor’s staff to fix errors she saw in proposed legislation.
Trumbull First Selectman Vicki A. Tesoro said she got a similar pledge when she told the governor about combined Education Cost Sharing formula cuts and new pension costs that would cause a $1.2 million hit to Trumbull’s budget.
“He listened and said he would get back to me,” Tesoro said.