Hines Sight / Oh, what a night at the RTM
Published 6:05 am, Thursday, April 28, 2011
It had all the elements one would expect out of a town meeting -- tedium, drama, political quarrels, good exchanges of opinion, an over-capacity crowd, fatigue and disinterest.
Being in the audience at Monday night's Representative Town Meeting reminded me of all those hours I logged during the debates over high school consolidation and the reopening of a high school. This one didn't end until close to 1 a.m. either.
It was Fairfield democracy at its best -- and worst.
Let's start with the drama first. At 8:29 p.m., Assistant Fire Chief George Gomola addressed the RTM and the audience -- primarily made up of parents and Fairfield Public Schools staff -- to let everyone know that the number of people in the room exceeded the allowable capacity of 220. He politely asked that those standing along the perimeter of the Osborn Hill School all-purpose room make a single line against the wall and the others would have to go into the hall. He also requested that the exit doors be kept free. I appreciated that he was doing his job to keep us all safe. The audience moved into a single line, but the rear exit door still had people blocking it. Oh well. Gomola continued to roam the hallway throughout the evening.
And then more drama. When RTM Majority Leader Jamie Millington took to the podium to reveal the long-awaited, much-talked-about GOP-suggested cuts to the $264 million budget -- particularly the recommendation for the education budget (which is why all those people made the room over capacity, worrying Gomola), he was rightly called out by Democratic RTM member Patti Dyer for not having the document he was reading from available to everyone in the room. Each of the 38 Republican RTM members had a copy but the 12 Democrats were out of luck -- and so were the audience and the press. That was his first mistake.
His second mistake was telling Dyer that she and her counterparts could "sit next to a Republican member to follow along." After a hastily called Republican caucus to discuss this faux pas, copies were made -- enough for the 12 Dems but not the whole room. In the long run, Millington looked foolish and came off as partisan.
Let's look at the suggested cuts. The Republicans -- who drafted the cuts from focus groups it conducted solely among its ilk -- propose a $1,964,488 decrease to the next budget; $1.2 million of that would come out of the education package. Millington repeated more than once that the numbers were not final, could be wrong or were not supported even by all members of his kind. And some of the proposed cuts to the town-side of the municipal budget don't make sense. A $68,490 cut from the library budget (one of the busiest and finest in the state)? Chop $190,500 from information technology (when more online capabilities for residents might save money)? Slash $12,380 from registrars of voters (which oversees an election every year, including the November municipal one)? Slice $38,730 from H. Smith Richardson Golf Course (a huge money maker)? And $65 from the Health Department (why bother)? And that's only a sampling.
Then there were the suggested cuts proposed by Democratic RTM member Ann Stamler, who sees $263,864 that can be removed. Some of hers don't make sense either. More than $100,000 from HSR? She acknowledged that her cuts might overlap those of the Republicans. So that begs the question -- why didn't the Republicans and Democrats just come together and work on this prior to Monday night? Oh, wait, that would have been too easy and made too much sense.
Missing were explanation and justification for any of the cuts from any party.
The education budget. Where to begin? The recommended municipal budget forwarded by the Board of Finance to the RTM already includes a nearly $2 million reduction in what the Board of Education adopted.
The majority of the 30 or so members of the audience who addressed the RTM were parents.
Listening to their impassioned pleas for "no more cuts," one can't help but be swayed by these young mothers and fathers worried about their children's future. There's no doubt (and Schools Superintendent David Title has said as much) that the $2 million cut will be taken from programs and teaching staff -- and so will another $1.2 million if the RTM gets its way. One parent said, "Those who have the most to lose are the children."
That is distressing. No one wants to see a child's education harmed.
But when nearly 80 percent of the 2011-12 school budget is for contractual salaries and benefits, where else would it come from? Here's a thought -- how about the central school office? One speaker bravely and succinctly voiced his belief about the seemingly top-heavy administration: "It is an elephant sitting on us for years and no one wants to talk about it."
Take the cut from the administration, he said, not from teachers and paraprofessionals.
Other speakers, including some RTM members, asked about increasing the class size, which they believe would help reduce staff, thus reduce the budget -- instead of the Board of Education's proposal to increase staff by 19.25 full-time equivalent positions. (Just as an aside, class size is not dictated by contracted obligations, but rather school board guidelines and policy or past practice. Some class-size-related areas are indeed required, such as that for special education.)
Another speaker implored the RTM to get serious about getting a handle on union contracts. She said the whole budget situation is like throwing money into a pit. The contracts indeed are a place to start. But you know what? It may never happen. The Town Hall Employees Association contract agreement, approved by the RTM Monday night, does make some strides in doing just that, however. It includes a requirement that new hires will be eligible for a 401(a) retirement plan as opposed to the municipal pension.
Wage increases are from 0 to 3.5 percent over the three years, some at six-month intervals, and there are changes to medical insurance. Another speaker noted that the real impact of tighter collective bargaining agreements wouldn't be seen for years.
The most interesting statement of the evening came from Democratic RTM member Hal Schwartz, who suggested to the parents in the audience that perhaps they should be talking to the Board of Education about keeping the cut from affecting the classroom. "We can do with less," he added. It will be interesting to see if they do.
All of this gets sorted out -- or not -- on Monday, May 2, at 8 p.m. at Osborn Hill School (let's hope the RTM finds a larger venue) at the budget adoption meeting. One thing's for sure: that meeting is going to be a doozy.
Patricia A. Hines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She also can be followed at http://blog.ctnews.com/hines.