Fairfield BOE narrowly passes $194 million school budget

FAIRFIELD — The Board of Education approved a $194 million budget following heated exchanges.

The adopted budget is still 5 percent more than the current budget, even with the $240,000 the board cut from the superintendent’s proposal. The vote fell along party lines, with Democrats voting in support and Republicans voting against.

First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick is now in charge of incorporating it into the town budget.

The $240,000 came from a number of cuts, including removing new positions Superintendent Mike Cummings included in his proposal, legal fees, transportation and a communications audit.

The board’s first vote on the $194 million budget failed, with four members voting to approve, four members voting against and one abstaining — a possible first for the board. Board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly then switched from abstaining to approving after another hour of discussion.

Maxon-Kennelly said she originally decided to abstain because she believed the Republicans’ lack of support would make it hard to advocate for the budget before the other town bodies.

Board member Nick Aysseh said he did not believe that the Board needs to put forth a budget with a $10 million increase in the middle of an economic crisis.

“Unfortunately, tonight, I don’t see how I can support a budget that doesn’t attack structural change that we’re looking for,” he said. “We haven’t done enough looking at where we can make efficiencies and, in my opinion, that is going to weigh into my vote tonight.”

He said he was looking for efficiencies throughout the school system that could be cut or reallocated — something other town bodies have been telling the school board for years. He noted that he proposed motions throughout the meeting to reduce the budget by about $800,000 but they all failed.

“I think that’s the only way that, long-term, we can get back on the right track and start to make these changes,” he said. “My motion failed, and I don’t expect you to have answers or alternatives for those motions to come up with another way of structural change that saves those kind of dollar amounts.”

Among his proposals was cutting $550,000 in cuts from salary and benefits for high school level English, which would affect impact one-on-one meet writing critiques held between English teachers and students.

The vote fell, and failed, along party lines, with Republicans voting in support of the cut and Democrats voting against it. Democrats spoke to fears it would heavily impact students, while Republicans stressed it was time to find places to cut the budget.

Maxson-Kennelly said the board, including Republicans, have supported and voted for employment contracts, curricula, building enhancements and district enhancements. All of those things, she said, come with a price tag.

“And now they want structural change, which we agree with, which needs to be thoughtful, strategic and vetted by stakeholders,” she said. “None of which the slash and burn of tonight represented.”

Maxson-Kennelly said none of the reductions proposed during the meeting were discussed with staff and assessed for impact.

She said the Board of Education is not charged with finding out how much its budget will cost the town, adding the Board of Finance covers that realm. She said she supports structural change, but it needs to be done thoughtfully.

Chairwoman Christine Vitale said she would have supported Cummings’s budget as presented, but the budget cuts she supported were done so with an appreciation that the country is still going through a pandemic and there is financial uncertainty.

“I’m disheartened that the actions taken by those of us who made reduction were not seen as a give to some extent — they were hard to make,” Vitale said, referencing a decision to reduce art funding by $95,000. She said she was disheartened but respected her colleagues decision to not support the budget.

Vitale reminded people that $2.55 million of the budget was built in, and the board was mandated to do so by the town.