HARTFORD— It took only a few weeks for opposition to develop against legislation encouraging Connecticut schools to consolidate.
By Friday, it had grown into hundreds of teachers, parents and students from mostly small towns, many wearing stickers that read "Hands Off Our Schools," packing a public hearing at the Legislative Office Building to fight what they consider forced consolidation and regionalization.
"People see their local schools as the heart and soul of their towns and they simply don't feel people outside their community should be dictating how they should educate their children," said Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton. She said her email inbox is "exploding" with opposition to three bills, including one proposed by the state's new governor, Democrat Ned Lamont.
Lavielle held up a stack of petitions signed by more than 8,300 residents. She noted that a Facebook group already has more than 4,500 members and said that more than 3,500 pages of testimony were submitted to the General Assembly's Education Committee for Friday's hearing.
"Wouldn't you give your child every resource you could to help them succeed?" asked Wilton High School junior Danielle Favarolo, one of many students who came to testify from Wilton, a wealthy community of about 18,500. She said that her father travels five hours each day so she can go to school there, and that she fears her district could be forced to consolidate.
Proponents of the legislation have tried to quell the outcry. At least one lawmaker said he hoped his bill would prompt debate about a contentious subject that has been discussed in other New England states with diminishing student enrollment and a need to cut costs.
"I want to be very clear. We're not closing or consolidating schools, busing children long distances and we're not removing local control," said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk, whose bill would require any district with a student population of fewer than 2,000 to join a new or expanded regional school district with more than 2,000 students. Districts that refuse would have to explain their reasoning to the state Department of Education.
He said lawmakers are trying to improve students' access to programming like art and music, and also to save money by making the state's education system more efficient.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, who proposed legislation encouraging more regional school districts, said the purpose of his bill was to "begin a discussion" about how Connecticut has too many single-town school districts that are losing students.
"That is our challenge and our problem," he said, adding that a voluntary plan would be preferable to forced regionalization.
Lamont last week met with municipal leaders in Fairfield County and tried to assure them that he supports incentives that encourage more regionalization and consolidation. His bill would create a commission that would develop plans toward that end.
"On sensitive, localized issues like our schools, it's important to lead with the carrot and not force peoples' hands," he said, noting that his bill does not force any of these partnerships. "This is an issue that has strong feelings on all sides, but we have to remember that at the end of the day, it's about ensuring that our kids get the best education and that we don't burden our cities and towns by subsidizing inefficiencies."
In Connecticut, there are 169 towns, 206 school districts and 1,493 public schools.
Vermont instituted a consolidation plan that is currently being challenged in court. A tri-partisan group of Vermont lawmakers is seeking to postpone the mandatory school mergers deadline from July 1 to July 2020. Another bill would put a pause on involuntary mergers until the courts rule on legal challenges filed by school districts.
In Maine, results have been mixed after a 2007 move to force schools to consolidate. There's been a more recent push for voluntary consolidation.
And in South Carolina, lawmakers this year are considering offering incentives to school districts to ease consolidation.
While opposition to consolidation bills in Connecticut may be strong, Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, warned that the issue isn't going away, especially considering the level of racial segregation in the state's school districts.
"I understand that people move into communities because the education is outstanding. Great. Great. But there's a reason why and we haven't dealt with it," he said. "It depends on where you live and your zip code. That determines your outcomes, unfortunately."