Board of Ed Budget Comes Under Spirited Debate

Several Residents Speak in Favor of Further Cuts to Proposed $146.5 Million Board of Ed Budget, While Many Argue Against Them

It was nearly Tuesday morning before members of the public got a chance to speak on the proposed $264 million town budget for 2011-12, but nearly everyone who packed the all-purpose room in Osborn Hill School at 8 p.m. Monday waited for the chance to speak.

Most of the roughly two dozen residents who spoke to the Representative Town Meeting didn't want the Board of Education's proposed $146.5 million budget cut any further, though several residents said the budget could stand more cuts without impacting the quality of education delivered to students.

The elected school board in January approved a $148.5 million budget for 2011-12, but the Board of Selectmen cut $2 million, a decision backed by the town's Board of Finance, and the education budget reviewed by the RTM Monday night stood at $146.5 million, an increase of 3.5 percent, or $4.9 million, from the current education budget of $141.6 million.

James Millington, the RTM's Republican majority leader and a District 9 Republican, said another $1.2 million cut would be proposed at 8 p.m. Monday in Osborn Hill School, when the RTM votes on cuts to the proposed $264 million town budget and then votes to adopt a budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

The tax rate associated with the proposed $264 million budget, which rises 5 percent, or $12.5 million, from the existing $251.5 million town budget, is 22.51 mills, or $22.51 for every $1,000 of assessed property value. Residents can determine their projected tax bill in 2011-12 by dividing their property assessment by 1,000 and multiplying the resulting figure by 22.51.

Robert Mac Guffie of Mayweed Road said he went to a grammar school that had 72 kids and that the issue of class size "was a lot of nonsense in my point of view."

"Call me when you get to 50 in a classroom and you might get my attention," Mac Guffie said.

However, Michele Whelan, of Old Academy Road, said increasing class sizes amounted to "a degradation of our schools."

"I moved my kids to Fairfield because of its schools. I will move my kids out of Fairfield because of its schools," Whelan said.

James Gallagher, of Congress Street, said the Board of Education should consider cuts from "the topside down." He said 18,000 families in Fairfield had a household income of less than $25,000 a year and that school district administrators made more money than the first selectman and police chief. "And those are the Indians," Gallagher said of school district administrators with higher salaries than First Selectman Ken Flatto and Police Chief Gary MacNamara.

"It's time the Board of Education started looking at the topside down - not teachers and not paraprofessionals," Gallagher said.

But Bruce Monte of Sky Top Terrace, a former Board of Education member, said Fairfield's school district has always had "a very lean administration" compared to the administrator-to-teacher ratio in other school districts. "We're operating 22 percent leaner than the state average," Monte said.

However, Kate Daniello, co-founder of We the People of Fairfield, a taxpayers' advocacy group, questioned whether the school district employed too many school psychologists, had class sizes that were too low and whether the number of "houses" at each of the town's two high schools should be reduced from three to two. She said the district also shouldn't hire principals to run the summer school program and instead should have existing principals run the programs.

Monte defended having three houses in each of the high schools, saying the ideal size for a high school was 700 to 900 students and the houses were "one mechanism we have to create smaller learning communities."

Julie Gottlieb, of Applegate Road, said further cuts to the Board of Education's proposed budget would likely impact classes and programs. She said cutting school psychologists wasn't a good idea when teen bullying was prevalent in society.

Eugene Hoffman of Whitewood Drive said Supt. of Schools David G. Title already had said that further cuts to the Board of Education's proposed budget would directly impact staff.

"If you cut the education budget, you're cutting into the kids," Rui Lopes of Farist Road said to the RTM. "You cut any further, this educational budget, and you're going to get to that child. You're smart people. Be creative. You can find it somewhere else."

Susan Brown, of Pemburn Drive, said the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance already had cut $2 million from the $148.5 million budget that had been adopted by the Board of Education in January. "You cannot rip the rug out from under our school system without significantly damaging it," she said.

Board of Education member Sue Brand said the $2 million cut already made to the budget would have "a tremendous impact."

"How much is the taxpayer going to gain and is it worth the detriment to the schools?" Brand asked of an additional cut.

Dorene Herron, of Forest Avenue, said Fairfield's educational system "cannot sustain a $1.2 million cut on top of a $2 million cut," and Elaine Davis of Farmington Avenue questioned who would want to move to Fairfield if its school system was no longer providing "above-average programs and services."

The RTM can cut the Board of Education's proposed budget but can't dictate where the cuts are made. Only the elected, nine-member school board can do that, and Hal Schwartz, D-7, said parents ought to "turn to the Board of Education and say, 'Take it out of everywhere else - not in the classroom."

However, Carolyn Richmond, R-1, said the average class size in the town's two high schools was under 20, which she said was "just a little low." She said the average class size in kindergarten through grade 2 was 20.3, and the average class size in grades 3 through 5 was 22.2, which she said seemed in line with class sizes around the country at those grade levels. "I think we have more room in the middle school and high school," she said.

Richmond said the school district also was "extremely generous" with the number of psychologists in the schools and that she wanted to see curriculum leaders spending time in the classroom. She also questioned the need for school board employees hired for instructional improvement and said the district's music program was "very generous" compared to other school districts.

"What we really want to do is prepare our children, and we have to look at the core," Richmond said. "We have to look to electives. I think they're nice to have, but are they really necessary?"

Joe Palmer, a District 4 Republican, said $10 million of the $12.5 million increase in the overall town budget was related to personnel costs and suggested that the debate be switched to "how to fund an out-of-control employee expense."

"These costs aren't going away," Palmer said. "These aren't a one-time expense. We need to get major concessions on employee contracts...There's no other place to save, and these costs are out of control and are going to put us in real jeopardy. Next year is going to be just as bad."

Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-6, the RTM's minority leader, said she didn't disagree with Palmer's assessment. "We have to start farther upstream and look at the way we negotiate contracts," she said.

Kevin Hoffkins, D-7, said 25 percent of the increase in the Board of Education's proposed budget was due to a contract approved by the RTM. Hoffkins said it was "a little difficult" for RTM members to approve a contract and then be upset with costs going up from that contract.

Nicholas Mirabile, R-9, said the country was in a recession and that inflation was impacting senior citizens on fixed incomes and residents who are out of work. "The ability to pay eventually stops," he said, adding that high taxes also impact the value of a home because potential home buyers look at a property's annual tax bill before they buy it.

On the other hand, Mirabile said, the quality of a town's educational system draws potential home buyers to that town. "It's two very important issues we have to balance," he said.

Daniello indicated the RTM ought to reject proposed contracts between the town and unions representing town employees. "What we keep hearing about is contracts, contracts, contracts, so I would encourage the RTM to keep sending back these contracts so we can get the much-needed concessions," she said.

The RTM earlier Monday night approved a contract between the town and a union representing 84 Town Hall employees, but town employees in six other unions are working under expired contracts.

Gaylord Meyer, of Spruce Street, said residents were living in tough times and suggested the RTM "go after where the problem is."

"It's in the contracts," Meyer said.

John Santa, of Chester Place, compared the pinch to taxpayers to a frog placed in a pot of water that is gradually brought to a boil. "You're dealing with a very hot frog right now," he said to the RTM.

momof3 April 27, 2011 at 12:37 PM
Just a question about the census numbers--these numbers are not just of taxpayers right? These include people who rent. They may or may not be feeling a tax burden. Rather than focusing heavily on the low end, I think we should remember that 1/4 of our households are making $200,000 and above. I am not saying we should pay just because we can. We should be fiscally responsible. If savings are to be had, by all means we should have them. I'm not sure we are at the point we should be giving up teachers, school psychologists, music classes, languages, smaller classes. Many would rather pay a little extra in taxes than see these things gone. I do understand that we are talking about cuts to a proposed budget. I also appreciate that the BOE budget needs to increase because teachers are getting a much deserved pay increase this year, and the cost of items has increased. As far as maintenance, there are few ways of looking at when/why to fix/replace something. It isn't just about what we'd like--sometimes it is about safety, sometimes it because the cost of not updating could ultimately be more costly. That said, I agree, the BOE needs to start at the top and see where the cost savings are. 2 million has already be cut from the proposed budget. I think the comments parents have made to the RTM need to be heard by the BOE because once this budget passes (most like with more cuts), it will be up to the school district and BOE to decide where the cuts will be.
Chuck E. Arla April 27, 2011 at 01:09 PM
First off, TJC, you don't know me so it's Mr. Arla to you. I haven't invited you to address me by first name. Your tone is juvenile. Grow up.
Gerard Speno April 27, 2011 at 03:04 PM
See the whole thing word for word.. Channel 79 Fair TV or http://fairtv.pegcantral.com
TJC April 27, 2011 at 03:46 PM
Mr. Arla, I'll take that response as confirmation that you have no basis for your claims. Thanks.
Just One Teacher April 27, 2011 at 07:18 PM
Looking over the data in the link you provided more closely I feel I should clarify a point of confusion. Jim was referring to the data on "families" and the stats you posted above pertain to "households". Not the same thing. Families are households with children under 18. According to the data you provided the number of families making fewer than 25K actually went down from 903 to 710 in that decade. Thanks again for posting the link.
Just One Teacher April 27, 2011 at 07:29 PM
45% make 100k and up. Mean household income is $167,642.
steve sheppard April 28, 2011 at 03:11 PM
Just remember less than 5% of the U.S. population makes over $120m a year of EARNED income...so I would question those numbers as they might include unearned income as we do have some very wealthy retired people in town as well as current CEO's and presidents of companies. A lot of those very wealthy people are sending their kids to private school so hard for me to think of them in the school debate. For me (I have lived here most of my life) I really question the administrative side of our costs. We had two high schools in 1980 when our population was the same as it is now. Have we shot ourselfs in the foot by building nice looking schools like Burr and Ludlowe middle school with lots of glass, multi gyms, etc. that have turned out to be very expensive to maintain? There was talk of reducing the housemaster system. When I was in high school I did not know what they did and still do not know what a housemaster does....Looks like we really need to look at all aspects from the top on down to the bottom. Maybe we should be looking at the BOE administrative side of the cost equation.
steve sheppard April 28, 2011 at 03:36 PM
I''m so mad at my tax increases over the past ten years, compared to historically what they have been, that I am in the camp of "stop the foolish spending." Bonding a skate board park, bonding a 14 and under girls softball field that is not even attached to a school like the one at Mill Hill school and the list could go on......My property taxes have more than doubled in ten years and when I just did the math was an 8% annual increase over the past ten years!!!! Just nuts!
Concerned Fairfielder April 28, 2011 at 03:56 PM
Can I recommend a newer prospective. Look into the mill rates 20, 30, 40 years ago in this Town. I think you would be astonished to find that they are extremely high according to today's standards. Additionally, I think you would find the demographics of the Town then would more closely represent what they are today. Today we have younger families and a whole hell of a lot of kids. In fact, just yesterday I had to yield at bus stop near Sherwood Farm Road. 8-10 kids got off the bus, for one dead end street. By the way, they did not have private school uniforms on.
Gigi Christel April 28, 2011 at 07:06 PM
Next year's enrollment projections have an increase of over 100 students.
Just One Teacher April 28, 2011 at 09:31 PM
Fairfield County is hardly an average county and this town is not even close to an average town. Some of the numbers could be skewed, statistics are only so useful with thorough investigation into how the raw data was collected and interpreted, but this state has the highest per capita income in the US and this county has the highest income in the state. I am pretty sure that at least some of those millionaires are sending their kids to our schools. I have a guitar in my class so I can play a few minutes during my lunch or as I am working after school to relieve stress. Not surprisingly some of my students see it and want to chat about music. I have students who own guitars worth more than my car. Not one, but several! Also, I always have my students fill out a form at the beginning of each year that includes parents contact info and job. I sometimes invite parents to share their expertise to help better my curriculum. Not too many dirt farmers and MacDonald’s burger flippers listed. Is everybody in this town loaded? No, of course not. But make no mistake about it; this town is VERY well off in general. I do feel bad for the average families that have lived here for generation’s because of the rising taxes, but then again, the properties that were purchased decades ago have grown much more valuable. So all the millionaires moving here have made them wealthier too by way of their increased home values.
Just One Teacher April 28, 2011 at 09:31 PM
I am right with you on the inefficient designs of the schools. I am not sure what is with the flashy facades and multiple giant open spaces. It seems whoever was in charge of building these schools was much more concerned with flaunting of deep pockets than building efficient places of learning. Then again, have you noticed the amount of marble used inside the FPS central office building? I am pretty sure their bathroom alone is worth more than my whole apartment! Here are the job descriptions for FPS http://www.fairfieldschools.org/board-of-education-policy-2000.htm Most leave something to be desired...
Just One Teacher April 28, 2011 at 09:34 PM
How much of that tax increase was due to your property value going up? That would be called return on investment...
Bruce Monte, Jr. April 29, 2011 at 04:31 AM
@H Tuttle: what I said was, "In 2006-2007, the last year for which data were available, the ratio of administrators to teachers in Fairfield was 1:16.9, compared to 1:14.3 in our DRG, and 1:13.9 across the State. So compared to the State, Fairfield is operating 22% leaner." Here's the link: http://www.csde.state.ct.us/public/der/ssp/dist0607/dist032.pdf. See the table at the top of page 3. In 2007-2008, they stopped publishing this data in the Strategic School Profiles. But the operational audit of the district provided consistent results when it recommended increasing central office staff by (if I recall correctly) two positions.
Bruce Monte, Jr. April 29, 2011 at 04:36 AM
I agree that teachers in general are underpaid for the value that they deliver to the community, and I am grateful for their shared sacrifice in agreeing to a pay freeze for a year. But the solution is not to cut administrators. Their responsibility is to ensure that the teachers in the classroom can focus on educating students. They support the teachers in innumerable ways, ranging from ensuring that curricula are up to date to managing the district's infrastructure and finances, from making sure that there are buses to pick up the children to making sure that there's oil in the burners to heat the classrooms. Arbitrary cuts to school and district administration would be extremely damaging to the district -- and to the students' success in the classroom. I haven't heard a specific suggestion yet (other than reducing the number of houses in the high schools -- and that's a bad idea for a host of reasons) that identifies a specific area of administrative overstaffing. Instead, what I hear is a presumption that there must be too many administrators as a justification not to cut teacher salaries or positions. Finally, I've seen a couple of very disturbing suggestions about cutting the budget for maintenance and capital improvements. As Santayana said, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It was just a few years ago that the Town paid the price for deferred maintenance -- culminating in the need to build a new McKinley. Let's not repeat our past.
steve sheppard April 29, 2011 at 03:30 PM
To Just One Teachers comment. In ten years my house has gone up 49.35% in value while my property taxes have gone up 125%......so when you talk about return on investment my house has done better than the stock market over ten years but has not kept pace with the town's misspending.
Chuck E. Arla April 29, 2011 at 03:40 PM
Res ipsa loquitur
momof3 April 29, 2011 at 03:57 PM
Mr. Sheppard--think the value of your house would have gone up so much if Fairfield had let its schools slip?
steve sheppard April 29, 2011 at 04:18 PM
We have made a huge push with our schools verses when I went to high school in town, from two high schools to one and then back to two. But from past history there has been no real change. What I mean is my first house which I bought in 1983 moved in about the same value range over ten years that my current house has in ten years. My first house had to go thru the stock market crash in 1987 and the 1991 recession. So looking at past history the only thing that I have witnessed first hand is property taxes moving much faster higher than what I have expirenced before. I do not have the answers only lots of questions.....and that we as a town have to change either back to how we used to run things or really take a deep dive into all areas of how we do things to see if we can do things better differently. In the old days we would of never bonded a skate board park or a girls 14 and under softball field that is not attached to a school. We would of never given away for a dollar a year a 50 year lease to a private organization (Fairfield Museum) public land nor would we of given away for one dollar a year for 35 years a public building to the Fairfield Theater company. I could go on and on.....maybe it is more of the newer population that is demanding more services. In summary I am all in favor of having a strong school system, what I am not in favor of is building schools that are pretty to look at but not good for maintance or to heat and cool.
momof3 April 29, 2011 at 04:47 PM
Unfortunately, we can't go back and rebuild Burr or Ludlowe. We can only move forward. Collectively, we need to decide what is important. Where do we want our tax dollars going? What is the best way to spend our tax dollar? No one likes to pay taxes, but if that tax dollar is spent wisely, it is easier to stomach. I almost feel like this call to further cut the BOE budget is almost symbolic. People are angry about past decisions, mismanagement, and that they are being asked to spend money at a time when money may not be as plentiful as it was in the past. People don't think it is right that the BOE should be asking for more money when times are tough (despite the fact that BOE may need this money to run our school and educate our children.) So more cuts are made, then what? What are our schools going to look like and what are the repercussions going to be? I'm all for cutting to save just money--I just want specifics--tell me that you don't think we need to spend x amount of dollars on y. I haven't heard those specifics--except from Dr. Title who said that in order to cover the 2 million cut that has already been made-80% would come from staff (23 certified full time or 46 non certified non certified or some combination). So where is the next 1.2 million going to come from? School Psychologists, music programs, house system?
steve sheppard April 29, 2011 at 05:16 PM
Hey, when I graduated we had kids going to Yale, Princeton etc. in the mid to late 1970's and we probably have kids going to great schools today as well. C. Vitale is right people are not happy with the over spending and lack of a transparent real future planning by BOE. When I was on TPZ and the BOE came before us to ask for more stand alone trailers for classrooms, my question was "what is the oldest trailer that has been in use" I remember we were told 1987. I then said I would not vote on this until TPZ was given a long term plan regarding the use of trailers vs. school buildings expansion programs. The BOE did not like hearing this and later reluctantly did come back with a long term program that I found, at the time, very poorly planned and packed with long term building plans for almost every school. So for me the BOE has a very poor track record of planning and being transparent.
momof3 April 29, 2011 at 05:34 PM
BOE does have a long term plan for building renovations/repairs--believe it is posted on its website. If members of public are truly interested in these plans, I suggest they attend subcommittee meetings. Get involve in the process at the beginning; there's a better chance to evoke change.
Gerard Speno April 29, 2011 at 05:43 PM
Hey..Catch the latest Fairfield Plan & Zoning meeting ( 4/26/2011)on Fair TV Ch. 78 or VOD @ http://fairtv.pegcentral.com
Wally April 29, 2011 at 06:15 PM
Just one teacher, Judging by the grammar in your response you are significantly overpaid. You knew the pay scale going into this line of work so please go cry in your oatmeal and not complain about cashings checks written out of monies collected from hard working people pockets.
TJC April 29, 2011 at 06:16 PM
<<In the old days we would of never bonded a skate board park or a girls 14 and under softball field that is not attached to a school. We would of never given away for a dollar a year a 50 year lease to a private organization (Fairfield Museum) public land nor would we of given away for one dollar a year for 35 years a public building to the Fairfield Theater company. >> Actually, this is not something new. In the "old days" the town was leasing the Country Club of Fairfield's land for $1... and guess what... they still are.
Wally April 29, 2011 at 06:22 PM
Christine, I can only assume that you have no clue based on the comparisons you make. How could you compare ffld to Greenwich and Darien? They spend more because they can afford to spend more. If you wanted Greenwich or Darien you should move there. My guess is you couldn't afford the house and that's why you chose Fairfield. Just because the neighbors can afford the in ground swimming pool doesn't mean your family is entitled to one as well.
Just One Teacher April 29, 2011 at 06:40 PM
Well, that certainly is a problem then. Developement needs to stay in line with revenue and the people who run this town have obviously not done their jobs very well.
momof3 April 29, 2011 at 06:56 PM
Wally, I do have a clue. I don't expect Fairfield to spend as much as Greenwich who spends about $3000 more per pupil than Fairfield, but I do think that some costs that come with education don't fluctuate depending on the town you live in. Are medical plans for teachers cheaper because they teach in Fairfield as opposed to Darien? Is energy cheaper? Are books and paper cheaper? Do the materials to fix a roof cost less in Fairfield? I guess teachers could be cheaper, but we need to be competitive in this area as well. We want good teachers so we need to be prepared to compensate (just like in any other industry.) I was just comparing Main Street towns in So. Fairfield to show that Fairfield is not alone. Stamford, Norwalk, Easton, Redding and Weston are also spending more per pupil than we are. I wasn't saying, we should be spending because our neighbors are spending, but some of the costs may due to our location.. Yes, if I wanted a town that spends more on education, I could move, just as those who want to spend less on education could move. It works both ways. Ideally, no one will feel the need to leave this great town of ours.
steve sheppard April 29, 2011 at 06:59 PM
TJC What really happened is that the Club gave the beach land to the town so the town could have Sasco Beach at $1 a year. It was and still is a great deal for the town, though I believe that a swap was done a few years ago to finalize the town to own Sasco Beach.
steve boudreau April 30, 2011 at 12:58 AM
Informed and fed up: It is almost incredulous that people throw around facts and figures and make assumptions that are completely fallacious to the opinions, points and arguments they attempt to make. I applaud them for their interests in very important topics, however, the truth of the matter is we should cut from both top and bottom. We don't need a Deputy Superintendent of Schools. If Dr. Title can't do the job, let him hire a deputy and let him pay for it. There are dozens of teachers who do not belong teaching. Eliminate those positions! Curriculum directors... ha, with one or two exceptions they do little to earn their salaries. I think often times curriculum are changed only to validate their jobs and outrageous salaries. Curriculum are rarely adhered to, and administrators seem unwilling or unable to actually put new curriculum in place. If the changes are not positive, eliminate the curriculum leaders; if the changes are positive and they aren't instituted, fire the administrators. Ask the administrators who absolutely could not live without Ed-Line, first how much it cost and second if five plus years later it has been implemented by more than a third of the teachers? The answer is simple. Administration tell the teachers to use it, end of story. To just one teacher... I defy you to substantiate you ever work 80 hours a week!


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