Nearly 300 residents turned out Monday night to hear how much the Representative Town Meeting would cut from the Board of Education's proposed $146.5 million budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year.
After a long debate over taxes and the impact of more cuts on the school system, the RTM finally settled on an $800,000 cut - after forgoing a $1.2 million cut and a $600,000 cut.
Town Fiscal Officer Paul Hiller said the $800,000 cut, which reduced the school board's budget to $145.68 million, amounted to a savings of about $32 a year for the average taxpayer.
RTM member Kathryn Braun, R-8, who voted in favor of the $800,000 cut, said the school board's budget would still be $4.1 million, or 2.9 percent, higher than the board's current $141.6 million budget. "It's one half of 1 percent of the budget approved by the Board of Finance," Braun said of the $800,000 cut, adding that $4.1 million was "a significant increase."
Carolyn Richmond, R-1, said she believed the Board of Education could find savings by reducing the number of paraprofessionals and school psychologists; reducing music lessons; requiring curriculum leaders to spend half their time in the classroom, which she said would eliminate the need for three teachers; eliminating instructional improvement teachers; and charging students to park at the high schools.
"What I heard from my taxpayer constituents is we simply cannot afford to keep these large increases going," Richmond said.
However, Supt. of Schools David G. Title said the suggestion to reduce paraprofessionals, which originated in an operational audit of the Board of Education's budget by Prismatic Services, Inc., didn't take into account the financial impact of hiring teachers to take the place of paraprofessionals, which Prismatic had recommended. The $551,040 savings in cutting 16 paraprofessionals drops to a savings of $7,040 when the cost of hiring eight teachers to replace the paraprofessionals is included, according to a response to the audit that Title prepared on March 8.
Title added that if the district reduces the number of paraprofessionals, psychologists and music teachers, "you are reducing services to kids and families."
Title said curriculum leaders provide an important service by updating curriculums that teachers don't have time to do and instructional improvement teachers in the elementary schools coordinate services for children who are struggling.
Title said the Board of Education didn't just have to find $800,000 in savings if the RTM approved that cut. He said the school board had to find $2 million that was previously cut by the Board of Selectmen, a decision backed by the Board of Finance. Title added that he had cut spending for technology and maintenance in the 2011-12 fiscal year before he presented his recommended Board of Education budget to the school board in January.
Title said he understood the RTM's desire to cut the proposed education budget to help lower taxes, but added, "Please understand if you vote for a reduction, you're voting to reduce the educational services in the town."
"You're looking at 80 percent of the cut coming out of personnel. It cannot come out of attrition," Title said. "We'd be looking at position reductions of the mid to upper 30s - certfied and non-certified positions would be affected."
Title's response was enough to convince Patti Dyer, D-6, who said, "I really think our children will suffer if we cut this budget any further this evening."
But Liz Hoffmann, R-8, said education and services were two different things. She said the country was in a recession, people were lucky to have jobs and people were losing their homes. "Services are different than education. I just wanted to point that out," she said.
However, Kevin L. Hoffkins, D-7, said some of the positions mentioned by Richmond and Title seemed to affect the classroom and shouldn't be classified as only "services." He said the American School Health Association's recommendation of one psychologist for every 1,000 students, which would indicate that the school district had too many psychologists, was misleading because ASHA concentrates more on school nurses. He said the National Association of School Psychologists recommends one psychologist per 500 to 750 students. "We're right in that range. It's one to every 523 students," he said of the ratio in Fairfield.
Hoffkins added that paraprofessionals were "extremely important" and weren't highly paid.
Michael Mears, R-10, said Title "got stuck" having to fund contracts that the RTM had approved and that he wouldn't support the $800,000 cut.
Audience members seemed divided on the $800,000 cut, though a majority rose to their feet when Elaine Davis, of Farmington Avenue, asked people who didn't support the $800,000 cut to stand. "You can see your constituency," Davis said to the RTM. "Remember it's an election year."
But Robert Forcellina, co-founder of We the People of Fairfield, an advocacy group for taxpayers, said it wasn't the right time to be "adding money and giving people raises," and Joseph Witko of Sky Top Drive said he supported efforts to keep Fairfield affordable for everyone.
Palma Senator of Pilgrim Lane said Fairfield's senior population was dwindling because they could no longer afford "the ever increasing taxes on their fixed and decreasing incomes."
A document that indicated explosive growth in the number of school administrators over the past 10 years, compared to the growth in numbers of teachers and students, was disputed by Board of Education member Sue Brand who said the increases were shown in percentages and that teachers and students, who greatly outnumber administrators, would naturally have lower increases on a percentage basis.
School board Chairman John Mitola said Prismatic Services' audit had actually recommended that the district add two administrators. "It did not say we have too many...The simple fact is, we have the proper number of administrators in our district," he said.
But Braun said some of the work done by curriculum leaders, whom she said were each paid $122,000 a year, instead could be done by teachers, and she said the district had a deputy superintendent of schools who was paid $80,000 a year for two days of work a week. "I just don't see how you can have any employee of the town who works two days a week at $80,000," she said.
Joseph Palmer, R-4, said something had to be done to stem annual increases of 5 percent a year in Board of Education budgets due to "fixed costs," which he said are "out of control."
"We need the Board of Education and the town to come into our negotiations for union contracts with seriousness and the realization they need deep concessions," Palmer said.
Chad Stewart, R-2, said the only place to save money was in contract negotiations. "I'm going to encourage the Board of Education to take a hard line," he said, adding that he would look to increase class sizes as a way to reduce costs.
Selectman James Walsh said $3.1 million of the increase in the Board of Education's budget in 2011-12 was due to contractual salary increases, while $1.5 million was due to increased health insurance costs. "If you don't want the increases, don't approve the contracts," Walsh said to the RTM. "I'm proud of the educational system in this town and I support it. I do not want to go backward. There comes a limit to how much I'm willing to do."
First Selectman Ken Flatto said oil prices and health care costs couldn't be controlled by town officials and that children in classrooms with 25 to 30 kids didn't have the same level of service and support as kids in classrooms with 21 or 23 kids. Flatto said he had cut the Board of Education's adopted budget of $148.5 million budget by $1.6 million (the Board of Selectmen later cut another $400,000) and that the $1.6 million cut was "stretching it."
Board of Finance member Kevin Kiley said the finance board had examined the Board of Education's proposed $146.5 million budget (as approved by the Board of Selectmen) over a dozen meetings and that it had been cut to the bone. "We're at a point where, if we do cut further from this budget, we dramatically begin to decrease services we offer to children in our schools," he said.
But Richmond said the tax increase in 2011-12 for some residents would be 40 percent because the value of their homes went up in the recent townwide revaluation. "This is real money to a lot of our taxpayers," she said. "They cannot afford higher taxes."
Senator said Fairfield's senior citizens are hurting just as much as some RTM members believe students will be hurt by an $800,000 cut. "We are throwing our seniors, dare I say, under the school bus, and it's not right," she said.
After approving the $800,000 cut to the Board of Education's proposed budget, the RTM began its review of the townside operating budget by cutting $2,100 from Administrative Services, $12,130 from the Registrar of Voters and $1,000 from the Town Planning and Zoning Department before Dyer suggested the RTM call it a night and resume at 8 p.m. Tuesday in McKinley School.
RTM members agreed and should wrap up voting on the overall proposed town budget on Tuesday night. The Board of Finance would then set the tax rate for 2011-12 during a meeting that begins at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Education Center, 501 Kings Highway East.