Lon Seidman / ctnewsjunkie photo

ESSEX, CT— Reiterating his new found mantra “to just have the state get out of the way,” Gov. Ned Lamont came to Essex on Friday to drill home that point.

Lamont was at Essex Elementary School along with politicians and school officials from the area who are seen as innovators when it comes to finding ways to share school services.

Essex, along with Deep River and Chester, make up the Region 4 school district.

Lamont met with local officials at the collaborative preschool program, which is shared between the towns of Chester, Deep River, and Essex.

The preschool has been operating for more than 20 years and has resulted in a significant savings for taxpayers, Region 4 officials said. However, Region 4 officials have said that trying to undertake similar efforts in grades K-12 are impossible under the current rules.

Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, introduced legislation that he believes will help other school districts share services and cut costs across the state.

Lamont took notice and backed off his earlier call for penalties for school districts that fail to regionalize some of their back-office services, and would instead use construction bonds to incentivize schools to share services and cut costs.

The Education Committee passed Lamont’s revised bill Friday afternoon by a vote of 22-13, but not without criticism.

The idea of forced regionalization and consolidation was removed from the bill, but that wasn’t good enough for Republican lawmakers.

“It’s all still based on the premise that local school districts must be prodded somehow to act in their own best interests,” Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said.

Lavielle represents a community that organized loudly against Lamont’s original legislation.

Rep. Kathleen McCarthy, R-Waterford, said the words “consolidation” and “forced regionalization” have been removed from the bill, but she said the structure of the shared services commission remains.

“There’s a lot of angst still in the communities throughout the state,” McCarthy said. “There’s still enough in this bill for me that I cannot support.”

Rep. Bobby Sanchez, D-New Britain, said he applauds Lamont’s effort to change the bill, but he can understand that people have their doubts.

Needleman too applauded Lamont’s flexibility on the issue.

“At Governor Lamont’s budget address in February, he told us he would work with us on important issues, and I’m grateful we had the opportunity to do just that with him Friday,” Needleman said.

Needleman, who has only been a state senator a few months, said he deliberately decided to introduce very few bills because he wanted the ones he introduced to be priorities.

Needleman’s bill would allow multiple boards of education in a regional school district to act together and have that collaboration be recognized by the state as a Local Education Agency (LEA).

Needleman’s bill would also require the state Education Department to develop a report on best practices for sharing educational services.

In Region 4, Chester, Deep River, and Essex operate a single central office with one set of administrators, including one superintendent, who serves the towns’ three elementary schools and high school. A number of other staff members, such as the art, music, and foreign language teachers, are employed by the towns’ cooperative agreement board, permitting staff to work across each of the towns’ schools without having to replicate the positions in each school.

“It’s working well for us,” Essex Board of Education Chairman Lon Seidman said. He said Region 4 is “just looking for some relief” from some of the state mandates, adding that he believes the region’s cost-savings model would work well in other districts.

“Governor Lamont understands that for many towns the state’s current ‘one size fits all’ solution for regionalism is just not compatible with our local systems of government,” Seidman said. “By eliminating these restrictions and allowing towns to design their school districts we will begin to see some very creative and innovative solutions to the many challenges our schools face.”

There are 17 regional school districts in Connecticut. However, the state forces the towns and regional districts to maintain separate boards for each elementary schools plus a board for the regional schools.

When Lamont first talked about shared services in schools — a conversation forced by the need to find money to save in the state budget — his language was perceived by many, especially in the smaller communities, as pushing for forced consolidation.

He said his new proposal was developed in collaboration with stakeholders, and addresses concerns raised by members of many communities while continuing to encourage collaboration and shared services among schools. The governor said that he agrees with many constituents who do not want their school districts to be forced to consolidate operations, and is hopeful that the modifications to his proposal address those concerns.

The new language in Lamont’s bill also calls for a bipartisan commission on shared school services, made up of education stakeholders. The commission would have no power to force the adoption of its recommendations, but will look around and outside Connecticut to offer information about how other districts share services.

Needleman’s bill, which has morphed into SB 1069, was approved earlier this week.