Editor's note: The following letter about a referendum on Tuesday, in which voters will be asked whether $800,000 cut from the Board of Education's proposed 2011-12 budget by the Representative Town Meeting should be restored, was written by James Lee, former chairman of the Board of Education and a 60-year resident of Fairfield, and Kevin Kiley, a member and former chairman of the town's Board of Finance.
The Board of Education budget has not kept pace with increased enrollments and the cost of living. In constant dollars per pupil, it has been cut in each of the past two years, and it faces a truly damaging cut for the coming year.
Unusually for Connecticut, Fairfield's school population has increased every year since 1990. Families with children continue to move here, drawn by the success of the school system, buying the houses of those who are ready to cash out, and sustaining their value. Forty years ago, at the peak of the baby boom, there were over 12,000 students in our schools. Then the nests emptied, and enrollment fell to 6,000 in 1990. There were teacher layoffs as late as 1994. After two decades of steady growth, there are now over 10,000 students in our schools. And there will be more next year.
Meanwhile, the cost of living has also gone up. Since 2005, the Consumer Price Index has risen 15 percent while enrollment over the same period rose 10 percent, so that educating 2011's students at the 2005 level requires 25 percent more funding in 2011's dollars. But the budget increased only 19 percent over that time: 6 percent short. Two years ago, there was actually a $50,000 reduction from the previous year's budget, while enrollment increased by another 1 percent.
For the coming year, there are projected to be 105 more students, or yet another 1 percent increase, and historically the projections have been low more often than they have been high. The CPI in April of this year was 224.9, compared to 218.0 a year earlier, an increase of 3.16 percent. (It had been essentially flat over the previous 2 years.) The budget approved by the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance would have represented an increase of $5,000,000, or 3.53 percent, a bit short of the 4.16 percent needed to cover both enrollment and cost of living. The RTM reduced this by $800,000 to $4,200,000, or 2.97 percent. The differential of $800,000, when divided by 22,000 taxpayers, represents a mean saving to the average taxpayer of about $36.
To cover the loss, the Board of Education considered, and properly rejected, a fee for athletics. This would have been a truly desperate measure, unprecedented in Fairfield, and of doubtful validity under our state constitution. Fairfield's condition is simply not that desperate.
The other target, foreign language in the elementary schools, remains in the crosshairs. The proposal, in simple terms, is to reduce the program by half, including laying off 5 teachers and part of another, and it represents only half of the cuts that would be needed to balance the budget. The rest is no prettier.
Foreign language has been a fixture in our elementary schools since 1995, when we brought it back after a hiatus of over 20 years. It had been one of the crown jewels of the school system in the 1950s and 1960s – there were 14 elementary schools then – and it was lost after a referendum in 1972. To bring it back, we had to rethink why we did it: The point is not to train future translators, but to make better citizens, better able to live in a world that does not stop at the U.S. border. And the reason for starting them young – fourth grade is a compromise here – is that younger children are less self-conscious about imitating sounds. Middle school is too late.
Fairfield is a desirable place to live because it lives within its means and preserves what it has, building on the work of past generations to provide for future generations. We have built new schools, and renovated old ones. We have invested in a new train station, and in open space, and kept the top AAA credit rating that we earned 40 years ago.
But it is also a desirable place to live because of the way its volunteer government functions. Among them, the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Finance and the Board of Education have 21 members: 11 Democrats, 10 Republicans, only three of whom are paid at all, and only one – the first selectman – working full-time. Our boards are expected to balance the greatest good for the greatest number against the other needs of the community and the needs and ability of the taxpayers. To this task they bring years of experience, a deep knowledge of the community reinforced by town-wide election, and the dedication to spend scores of hours on homework and meetings. Their decision on the Board of Education budget was non-partisan, and nearly unanimous.
Those are the stakes. The Board of Education asked for what it needed, not for frills. The Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance judged that an increase of 3.53 percent was appropriate and within the town's means.