Now that Supt. of Schools David Title has unveiled how he intends to save $2.8 million, we have a real sense of what this town will feel like during the coming fiscal year, beginning July 1. And as with any tussle over dollars, there are winners and losers. Here’s a quick recap:
Selectman Jim Walsh: As selectman, Walsh is obligated to take a larger view of the town and school operations while retaining his Republican views. He asked thoughtful questions during the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance joint hearings on the budget and then made several powerful and persuasive statements during the Representative Town Meeting budget meetings. He tried to dissuade his own party from hacking and slashing at the budget, trying to instill reason in lieu of their passion. While he failed to stop the cuts, he certainly earned plaudits from many in the audience.
Supt. of Schools David Title: Hard to imagine the schools superintendent being a budget process winner, but he came out prepared with facts and figures. Whereas previous people in his post have used the students as almost a human shield during these budget debates, Title was more reasoned without losing his fiery concern. He had previously handed out his 22-page rebuttal to the Prismatic Operational Audit and kept asking the RTM to refer to it when talking about the mythical $5 million in savings the report projected. Additionally, he was blunt in his assessment that maintenance and technology were already cut down so further cuts would have to come from staff and programs. He backed that up Thursday night by suggesting World Languages be scaled back at the elementary and middle school levels in addition to asking parents to pony up fees for student athletics. Whether or not the Board of Education will endorse all of his cuts remains to be seen as will the results of a potential referendum to restore the $800,000 cut by the RTM.
Fair TV: Throughout the budget season, Gerry Speno and the town’s FairTV crew provided nearly wall-to-wall coverage of the meetings, showing off the brand new equipment purchased with our cable dollars. The non-stop rebroadcasts of hearings and meetings allow a greater percentage of residents to learn what’s being debated and which of their elected representatives are truly acting on their behalf or not.
RTM Moderator Jeff Steele: If anyone knows what it’s like to be under pressure as RTM moderator, it’d be me, a former moderator. And Jeff has done a terrific job in the role, appearing unflappable during the tense meetings. He’s kept members of the RTM speaking on topic and cut off the public when the time limit has expired. He’s been even-handed and deserves plaudits.
RTM member Ann Stamler: Of the 12 Democrats serving on the RTM, Stamler was the one to propose her own cuts to the budget, feeling in her heart there were savings to be found on both the town and school sides. She attended the meetings, asked questions, and found ways to make reasonable cuts without talking to town officials in private sessions. And when she got the information she needed, some of her proposed cuts were modified or dropped.
Fairfield Museum and History Center: When it was foolishly suggested to slash its budget by $17,000, people were reminded of how invaluable this facility and its collection of town history is. As one said, “If we don’t support our heritage, who will?”
Town IT Director Don Leslie: Of all the department heads approached by the Republican study groups, only Information Technology Director Leslie refused to meet with them, preferring to answer their questions in public. He addressed their concerns from the microphone and discussed, point by point, the issues raised. He saved some of the cuts, but was punished for his defiance as needed upgrades got denied.
The General Public: With a town of 59,000 and counting, the percentage of citizens to attend the budget hearings or the RTM district meetings was miniscule. Even a Saturday morning event to appeal to working adults or seniors was lightly attended. Everyone likes to complain about tax increases but few take the trouble to learn how the town is spending their money. With any luck, they will trouble themselves to learn the issues before voting in November.
The Kids: Research shows that children more easily learn a second or third language when young and the proposed cuts to elementary world language instruction will hurt. Additionally, programs we need to increase the number of instructional hours to remain competitive aren’t even being discussed any more since that would cost dollars we no longer have. Coming staff cuts won’t help the students, either.
RTM Majority Leader Jamie Millington: For the second year in a row, the RTM's Republican majority leader organized study groups, allowing his team to research the budget in private, away from the RTM's standing committees where these discussions are normally held. This time, though, the public caught on that deliberations were being done in private. Department heads were also scratching their heads before the May 3 RTM meeting, wondering how some of the proposed cuts were conceived. A frequent refrain overheard was, “Had they just asked me…” And clearly the important questions weren’t asked, so every cut was met by a department head explaining what the money was needed for, resulting in a mere $32,000 in cuts to the townside of the 2011-12 town budget (and again, I hold that the additional $128,000 cut to Information Technology is merely a deferred expense). Overall, the GOP looked ill-prepared despite their protestations to the contrary.
Republican Majority on the RTM: Several speaking during the budget hearings showed off a mixture of anger, ignorance, and/or intransigence. In many cases, despite logical arguments, ideology trumped reason. I suggest they watch (and listen to) themselves on the rebroadcasts so they understand how they come across to the general public.
We the People of Fairfield: Kate Daniello, co-founder of the taxpayer advocacy group, continues to ballyhoo her 3000+ membership, but they were as absent and silent as the rest of the town. As a result, she and Bob Forcellina, also a WTP co-founder, appear to be lone voices, shouting into the wind of indifference.