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.