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Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT — The concept of regionalizing and consolidating school districts to save the cash-strapped state is not a new one, but two new bills pushing the initiative have moved the issue front and center this legislative session.

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, proposed a bill which would force school districts in towns with less than 40,000 residents to consolidate with a neighboring district.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 SB 454: An Act Concerning The Creation Of Regional School Districts

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Senate bill 454 would force the regionalization of a large number of towns in the state, merging their school districts with larger municipalities or cities. Only 24 municipalities in Connecticut have a population over 40,000.

The law, if enacted, would become effective starting in July 2021.

Looney’s simple rationale for his bill is: “to create a more efficient educational system.”

He is proposing the creation of a commission to develop a consolidation plan.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 SB 457: An Act Concerning The Size Of School Districts

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And Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff and Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, 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 and are far from becoming law at this point, but the two bills have stirred up much debate already in the smaller towns that would be impacted if the proposals were ever enacted.

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North Branford (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo)

For instance, in North Branford, where there are two elementary schools, an intermediate school, and a high school — and a population of slightly more than 14,000 and a total of approximately 1,900 students, the talk of regionalization came up at the most recent Town Council meeting.

North Branford has been discussing possible renovations to its aging school buildings.

“The Lamont administration has indicated that less than 2,000 students is not a viable district,” Councilman Alfred Rose said, according to the minutes of the Jan. 22 Town Council meeting. “We may be forced to merge with another school district — so we should consider this before we put money into rebuilds.”

Many towns in the state, including in nearby Madison, are dealing with the issue of declining student enrollment.

Madison is closing one of its elementary schools at the end of the current school year, which will leave the town operating with five instead of six schools. And right next door in Guilford, student enrollment declined about 70 students from 2017 to 2018, a trend that is continuing this school year.

The town of Wilton has also been vocal in its opposition to Looney’s bill, which would force them to consolidate with Norwalk.

Three newly elected lawmakers — Sen. Will Haskell, who represents the town, Sen. Alex Bergstein, D-Greenwich, and Rep. Lucy Dathan, D-New Canaan — all issued a statement saying they would be unable to support Looney’s proposal.

“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,” they said.

From a bigger, statewide perspective, the largest lobbying group for small towns in the state, the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST), wasted no time stating its opposition to both bills.

“Consolidation does not always produce cost savings,” said Betsy Gara, executive director of COST. “Several smaller school districts have explored consolidation options and concluded that consolidation would not result in significant cost savings. Instead, consolidation raised concerns regarding whether the quality of education would suffer.”

Gara continued: “There are many reasons why consolidating small school districts may not be in the best interest of students, taxpayers, and the community. For example, many small school districts are located in rural areas where homes are spread out across a wide geographic area. For these students, forced consolidation may result in less time in the classroom and more time on the bus.”

The other statewide lobbying organization for Connecticut’s municipalities wasn’t as critical of the bills.

“It is too early in the session to draw a line in the sand on this important issue,” said Kevin Maloney, spokesman for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) that represents 168 of the state’s 169 municipalities.

“While we don’t believe these proposed pieces of legislation will pass in their current form, they are trying to address a critical issue that needs to be discussed and assessed this session,” Maloney said.

Gara said the legislators should spend their time working on mandate relief if they really want to help towns save money, instead of consolidation bills.

“Under the Minimum Budget Requirement (MBR) mandate, school districts must budget at least the same amount for education as they did in the prior fiscal year, with certain limited exceptions,” Gara said.

“The MBR mandate is holding town budgets hostage, imposing a tremendous burden on property taxpayers to fund unnecessary levels of education spending,” Gara added. “Towns need more flexibility to ensure that education budgets can be adjusted to reflect declining enrollment and other areas where savings can be achieved.”

Seven bills specifically addressing the MBR have been proposed this year:

SB 529
HB 6190
HB 5781
HB 5243
HB 5180
HB 5087
HB 5084

Legislative proposals related to unfunded mandates include the following:

SB 554
SB 482
SB 362
HJ 50
HJ 30
HB 5437
HB 5435
HB 5079