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Letter Writers Back Restoring $800K With Hard Numbers

Former Board of Education Chairman and Board of Finance Member Do the Math on Board of Ed Budgets and Say $800K Should be Restored in Tuesday's Referendum

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.

We agree.

James Lee

Kevin Kiley

Fairfield, CT

steve sheppard June 11, 2011 at 08:54 PM
Lee must be living in a different economy than me or be one of the people who likes all the fancy school buildings we built that we will have trouble taking care of. I want a good school system, but we can not continue as is. Lee mentions young families moving in as people cash out. Do the math, family moves in with two kids pays $10,000 in property taxes but two kids cost more than that to educate. Lee calls it a cash out I call it taxed out and we loose. At the current rate of employment it will take us about 60 months to get back to 7% unemployment. At the current home sales figures about 12 years to get back to peek home prices. Now, what do you think your property taxes will be in 5 or 10 years if BOE does not change how they operate.
R. Ludlowe June 11, 2011 at 10:59 PM
Steve, I think its time to pack your bags for Florida with all the other folks of your ilk. I'll even drive you to the airport. By the way, its "lose" not "loose." You must have been educated in a system that made major cuts to their resources, too.
Have you no shame June 12, 2011 at 12:34 AM
with 10,000 students in our schools, wouldn't it be easier,smarter and fairer just to charge each a registration fee (call it whatever you want) to make up the difference everyone wants and restore the 800,000? $80 bucks a head...seem reasonable?
G Hoffman June 12, 2011 at 04:08 AM
Wow. So if we continue on that line, you'd be perfectly fine if we made people who needed fire, EMS, or police protection pay an 'emergency response' fee? I'll pay this regressive "registration fee" as soon as you pay your fees retroactively and you prove that such a fee would be constitutional.
R. Ludlowe June 12, 2011 at 09:45 AM
that fee is in place already. Its called "taxes" and guess what? For the benefits we're talking about, its only $20 instead of the proposed $80.
Have you no shame June 12, 2011 at 12:17 PM
'Wow," right back at you. Just trying to be creative to get everyone what they want and head off future tax increases. I am guessing you care enough to have a civil discussion...so let's try to keep it that way. I am no expert on constitutionality, just trying to discuss ideas that might make sense. Lets not forget the town already charges plenty of fees for specific services only used by a select group of people. EMS, Fire, Police are used by all...as are snow removal, street repair etc. There are other services that demand individual fees. Think about beach stickers for example. EVERYONE contributes a portion of their taxes to the beach upkeep and maintenance, and a smaller portion buy beach stickers for a very nominal fee ($20)to use that service. Other park and rec programs are even more relevant. Summer playground camps charge a fee of $160. Some portion of our taxes go to the upkeep of the facilities where those take place, and the fee is very very reasonable for summer camp as a result...but not everyone pays it. I want a perfect education for everyone, but I also want to do it with an eye on the fiscal realities of the day. To do both, we may have to think out of the box. Restoring 800k this year may accomplish a short term goal...but I would rather vote yes for a more PROgressive way of thinking than the one currently proposed. I am a YES for keeping all the current programs, I just wish we could also vote for options on how to fund them.
maryHelen Melnick June 19, 2011 at 12:07 PM
We need to address getting rid of some of the administrative people at the BOE. those enflated saleries and contracts along with their benifits package is costing the town way too much. some ofthe contracred yearly raises are what some SR. citizens are struggling to live on. the contracted raises has gotten way far out of hand. We need as a town to be able to vote on new BOE administrators in the hiring process and also on the school budget like other towns. also we need to rewrite what ever rule there is that these contrats are permitted to exsist the way they are.
OneFairfield June 19, 2011 at 12:21 PM
Its sad that it has come to that. Why do we pay a gym teacher at the same rate as a science teacher? Why does the school superin. get payed double what the first selectman gets? The BOE never listens to the people that pay the taxes. But it is our fault as voters that we vote them in. It is also our fault that we listen to the "militant minority"...i.e. the 4000 people that voted for the referendum instead of the huge silent minority that is struggling to make ends meet. The system is all screwed up.
Brian June 19, 2011 at 01:17 PM
What???? Did you write this before your first cup of coffee? Does your computer have a spell/grammar check or are you trying to make a point with your repeated comments that really make no sense? Vote on BOE administrators? Do you vote for BOE members? Is that who you mean? I don't know why I'm wasting my time; you simply don't get it.
Brian June 19, 2011 at 01:24 PM
I agree; with the obese kids in town PE teachers should be making more. Don't think it's the Board of Ed's responsibility to be a money manager. I think that's the responsibility of the RTM and Bd of Finance. That's why there's such a complicated process. Don't like it? You do have choices: get involved in the process, run for one of the positions next election, move, or keep your rants to yourself and join the "huge silent minority". Pick one.
OneFairfield June 19, 2011 at 05:11 PM
If the PE teachers were doing their job maybe kids would not be so fat. But my point is that PE teachers have no homework to correct etc and are a dime a dozen. Look how hard it is to get a science or math teacher. There is a big difference. Many of us can teach PE without too much trouble. It takes real smarts to teach a core subject, yet they are paid the same.
G Hoffman June 20, 2011 at 03:56 AM
I reject your description of the people who voted for the referendum as "militant". Name one act perpetrated by a referendum voter that a rational person would describe as militant? If anything, the actions of the RTM motivated people who were once silent to become involved in our town's political process. Where was it reported that a gym teacher is making more than a science teacher? What comparisons are being made? Is the science teacher new? Has the PE teacher been in Fairfield for 20 years? Does the PE teacher also coach sports teams? @Brian, a few classes a week with a gym teacher isn't going to help a kid become fit, especially when that kid goes home and spends their hours in front of a screen after school.
maryHelen Melnick June 20, 2011 at 11:47 AM
Brian Its very clean YOU just do not get it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
R. Ludlowe June 20, 2011 at 08:23 PM
1) PE teachers are not on the same pay scale as a classroom teacher. 2) if kids are obese it is the fault of the parents, certainly not the gym teacher that interacts with students twice a week for maybe 2 hours total. Parents should stop feeding kids corn starch and letting them sit in front of browsers/xbox/tv for hours on end.
R. Ludlowe June 20, 2011 at 08:24 PM
i think your keyboard is broken.
maryHelen Melnick June 26, 2011 at 03:00 PM
Brian: when freedom of speach become verbal abuse then its time to rethink how one writes.

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