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Hines Sight / A glimmer of hope, but then business as usual

Updated 2:55 pm, Thursday, February 7, 2013
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Here we go again.

The school administration, supported by the Board of Education, is proposing to sock it to taxpayers with its $155.8 million proposed budget for 2013-14 -- a 4.6 percent increase over the current budget of $148.9 million.

Except for a slight glimmer of hope from a few board members -- who briefly discussed the impact that rising spending has on taxpayers -- it was business as usual for the folks operating out of the palace on Kings Highway East.

In crafting and presenting his proposal, Superintendent of Schools David Title, in a letter to the board contained in the budget package, said he tried to "balance the needs of our highly regarded school system with the financial capabilities of our town." (Which, by the way, could mean that he thinks all taxpayers have the means to continually pay for large increases in the schools. It all depends on how you want to interpret his statement.)

Title noted that the "driving force" in the proposed budget in the "sharp increase in the cost of health insurance." Health insurance coverage alone is projected to rise $5.4 million in 2013-14. That's a hefty sum. Instead of just accepting the increase, what are town and school officials doing to lower that number?

When the Board of Education scrutinized the budget in late January, a few board members did question how much is enough.

Member Tim Kery showed his colleagues a document he drafted noting that taxpayers would each pay nearly $62,000 in taxes in 2052 if the school budget were to increase 4.5 percent every year, compared to $23,500 a year if it were to rise 2 percent each year. He was followed by member Pam Iacono, who remarked, "I don't know that we're going to be able to maintain the level of service we've been able to provide going forward. I just don't think the money's there anymore."

Good for them. But it may be too little too late.

After all, salaries for school employees make up more than 61 percent of the proposed 2013-14 budget; the next largest chunk is for benefits at more than 17 percent.

For 2013-14, the expense for staff salaries is $98.9 million -- that's only leaves about $57 million for other stuff. I wonder, doesn't that bother anyone else? (But whatever you do, don't look at the list of the top 50 wage earners in the schools for 2012 -- it's astonishing. Here's a tidbit: The highest salary, $283,920.86, was Title's; the lowest was $109,805.60.)

In looking at the documentation provided by the central office, the education budget, as proposed by the administration, would have increased an average of nearly 4 percent from 2010-11 to 2012-13. Once the boards of Selectmen and Finance and Representative Town Meeting were done with their deliberations and cuts, the average increase in the school budget over the same period of time was 2 percent. As it should be.

Taxpayers cannot continue to support 4, 5 or 6 percent increases in the budget -- and the town-side budget is included in that warning.

Some observers were encouraged when the Board of Education asked Title to come up with cuts of $500,000 to $1.5 million or to reduce the proposed increase to the current year's level. It showed that, perhaps, board members are finally beginning to understand. But in the end, the board only cut $342,000, leaving the dirty work to the boards of Selectmen and Finance and RTM.

However, after the board's miniscule budget cutting, Kery reiterated his call to discuss at a later time how to slow the annual growth. That's a bit of good news. Let's hope he follows through.

Patricia A. Hines is a Fairfield writer, and her "Hines Sight" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at hinessight@hotmail.com. She also can be followed at http://blog.ctnews.com/hines or @patricia_hines on Twitter.