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Hines Sight / School chief has made good-faith effort to control spending

Published 6:41 am, Friday, January 24, 2014
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Here's what I took from Schools Superintendent David Title's proposed operating budget package for 2014-15: The Fairfield public schools still can perform well with less.

The 54-page presentation, which can be found at www.fairfieldschools.org, is pages upon pages of the public schools' achievements and goals. With the 2014-15 budget, he noted, the district can "deliver a high quality school system with the second lowest pupil expenditure in Southern Fairfield County, 16 percent below the average."

That's good news.

He goes on to further state, "Our average annual budget increase in the past five years has been 1.61 percent, lower than contracted salary and benefit increases alone and lower than the average rate of inflation."

That's more good news.

He then offers pages of examples of non-academic student achievements, followed by a litany of academic accomplishments, primarily seen through standardized test scores.

Still pretty good.

Then we get into the nitty-gritty of what is envisioned for the next fiscal and academic year. He proposes a $156.9 million budget, which carries a $5.7 million increase, or nearly 3.8 percent more than this year's budget of $151.2 million.

The major drivers of the increase are staff salaries and benefits (46 percent) and tuition for special education students (23 percent). He calls them "the big three."

In addition to those, it's clear from his presentation that education reform and new mandates are forcing the district to put money where it otherwise may not have.

New teacher and administration evaluation systems, new "rigorous" statewide assessments "with higher stakes" and the new Common Core State Standards, the last of which is becoming the scourge of school districts throughout Connecticut, are contributing to the need for more money.

According to www.corestandards.org, "The standards clearly communicate what is expected of students at each grade level. This will allow our teachers to be better equipped to know exactly what they need to help students learn and establish individualized benchmarks for them. The Common Core State Standards focus on core conceptual understandings and procedures starting in the early grades, thus enabling teachers to take the time needed to teach core concepts and procedures well -- and to give students the opportunity to master them."

Sounds like a lot of nonsense to me. And from what I've read, many teachers in the state aren't too happy with it.

But it's typical of government bureaucracy to mandate programs and not provide any funding to help implement them. Instead, school districts are on their own.

Some of you may know that I've been critical in the past of the runaway spending by our school system. But this time, I'm willing to support the proposed increase (which, I'm sure, still can be trimmed just a bit) because the superintendent seems to have made a good-faith effort to contain costs as best he can.

The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the budget proposal Jan. 30.

In the next few weeks, First Selectman Michael Tetreau is expected to present the town operating budget for the next fiscal year. Considering what the school system needs to deliver its program, Tetreau would be wise to keep the town-side increase to a minimum.

And none of that scary 6 percent increase he tried to throw at us last year.

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 @patricia_hines on Twitter.