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Fairfield Citizen

Friday, October 31, 2014

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Letter: School spending can't match richest towns

Published 1:31 pm, Friday, February 21, 2014
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Recently, the Board of Education submitted its 2014-15 budget request, seeking a 3.9 percent increase (more than 2.5 times the current 1.5-percent inflation rate). This is on top of the burden Fairfield residents already face with taxes that have grown over the last 15 years at more than three times the rate of inflation.

Some say that the town should stop the draconian slashing of our education budget that goes on each year. But history shows that the BOE budget has gone up every year (except 2010 when it was flat) and currently represents over 54 percent of the town's total spending. In fact, over the last 15 years, the number of students rose 37 percent while the spending per student rose 57 percent. And these numbers don't include the annual cost of servicing our debt (now almost 10 percent of the overall budget) which is heavily devoted to maintaining our schools.

Advocates for school budget increases say that Fairfield spends much less per student than towns like Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan, Westport and Wilton. The problem with this argument is that Fairfield simply doesn't have the same spending power as those towns. The state uses a gauge called the Public Investment Community score (PIC) which measures the "relative wealth and need" of all Connecticut towns. It's based on five criteria -- per capita income, per capita grand list, the tax rate, per-capita aid to children receiving Temporary Family Assistance, and the unemployment rate. A review of these PIC scores shows that the towns most comparable to Fairfield are ones like Madison, Avon, Guilford and Farmington and we spend more per pupil than any of them yet our test results are no better.

Everybody wants an excellent school system, and, yes, the children are our future. But whether you are among the 70 percent of households that do not have children in our schools or the 30 percent that do, you should understand that we can't spend the same per student as some of the wealthiest towns in the entire country. Substantially higher taxes will not only reduce our home values but will drive out more and more residents. Many local realtors will confirm that this is exactly what is happening now.

We should have a top-down approach to the budget that first establishes how much we can afford to spend. A good start would be to simply restrict budget growth for the town, including the BOE, to no more than the rate of inflation.

We live in a wonderful town. Let's keep it that way by applying the same common sense budget restraints that every family does in managing its personal finances. And let's do it before our property values go into the kind of long-term decline that has befallen other once-thriving towns.

David Mackenzie

RTM, District 3

Fairfield