Schools budget faces further scrutiny ahead of public forum
FAIRFIELD — A larger-than-average budget ask from Fairfield schools could be a hot topic, along with other items, at a public forum this upcoming Saturday.
The Board of Education, which originally requested $182.3 million (a 5 percent increase from the current fiscal year), has been a target of recent scrutiny.
The Board of Selectmen unanimously approved First Selectman Mike Tetreau’s recommended budget of $317.5 million on March 13, which called for a $700,000 reduction in the schools’ request.
At a finance board meeting March 18, Superintendent Toni Jones and Board of Education Chairman Christine Vitale defended their budget, which was unanimously approved in January by their board.
Jones said Fairfield schools’ employees — numbering 1,535 according to her presentation — form a notable part of the budget with salaries, slated to come at $112.7 million.
“Fairfield Schools is the largest employer in Fairfield. When you look at why we have a large budget, it’s because we’re big,” Jones said, emphasizing that benefits, maintenance and utilities are the drivers of next fiscal year’s budget.
Finance members questioned the criteria of maintenance projects that had to be delayed throughout schools.
Jones responded saying it’s a process that comes from the staff and teachers, eventually working its way up to central office and the board itself.
“What gets in the budget is what we feel we can afford at this time,” Jones said. “This is the actual number we have to support the actual district.”
In February, the Representative Town Meeting approved $2.6 million in school capital projects, which are expected to improve districtwide infrastructure.
Other departments, like the Public Works and Solid Waste and Recycling, also caught the attention of the finance board.
The budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year allocates $2.7 million toward paving, an increase of $1.2 million from the current year, a substantial uptick according to Board of Finance Chairman Tom Flynn.
Recycling — previously a source of revenue — has now become an expense item and increasing headache for the town. The state mandates that towns recycle certain materials, like glass, that cost more to recycle than to dispose.
“This is a macro issue that is impacting not just Fairfield but the entire country,” Flynn said. “(The department) did the best job they could to budget but it’s certainly something to watch out for.”
The budget approved by the Board of Selectmen comes at $317.5 million, an increase of $12.4 million over the current fiscal year. If passed, Fairfield residents can expect a 2.24 percent tax increase, with a mill rate of 26.95.
Members of the Fairfield community are invited to attend a forum that will take place at 9:30 a.m. March 30 in the Fairfield Ludlowe High School auditorium.
When asked about how the finance board would vote, Flynn said members would be looking at things holistically before the vote.
According to a March 1 reminder, there will not be questions allowed at the public forum “though board members may make comments and observations based on public comment.”
The Board of Finance canceled its April 1 meeting and is expected to vote on the budget April 3.