Fairfield residents ask finance board to reinstate conservation position, school funding

File photo of students arriving at McKinley Elementary School in Fairfield, Conn.

File photo of students arriving at McKinley Elementary School in Fairfield, Conn.

Genevieve Reilly / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — Residents are asking the finance board to fully fund the schools’ budget request and return a conservation position back into the budget.

Those topics accounted for the bulk of what slightly more than a dozen residents spoke about at the recent budget public hearing. Several of the speakers are also school board members.

Under the selectmen’s nearly $335.5 million approved budget proposal, nearly $192.1 million would go to the schools, $30.4 million for shared education expenses and $113 million for the town. It is about $18 million, or 5.7 percent, more than the current allocations.

A big driver of both the town and school sides is reinstating money that was cut last year or covered another way because of the pandemic, officials said.

First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick’s proposal cut $2 million from the schools’ request, leaving an increase of about $7.5 million from the current year. At a previous meeting, she said about $500,000 more was expected in health insurance savings so the cut to the increase is really more like $1.5 million.

“I’m concerned that the $1.5 million cut to our budget will impact the students and programs that are vital to the success of our schools and I hope you’ll consider with earnest the needs of our students and teachers,” Carol Guernsey, a school board member, told the finance board.

Jennifer Jacobsen, another school board member, said there have been overages in healthcare costs for nine of the past 11 years so the projected savings for the upcoming fiscal year aren’t actually savings.

Steve Baker, president for the Parent Teacher Association council, said the organization generally is able to fill budget holes with fundraising but said it will be more difficult to do that now because of COVID-19.

“We regret that we may not be able to be relied on at that same capacity next year,” he said.

Jessica Gerber, a school board member, told the finance board the budget the Board of Education passed was needed to address the impacts of COVID-19.

“I think we’re going to see the impact of the pandemic in our schools for years to come in a myriad of ways,” she said.

The other popular item among speakers was to have the finance board put money back in to pay for a conservation administrator position.

The position was removed as part of Kupchick’s larger reorganization plan.

“As a coastal community, it’s our duty to have a strong conservation department,” said Kasandra Marshall.

Supporters of the position said it was important to have a full, experienced staff to oversee projects and permits, something a floater couldn’t do.

Other speakers also said the position was funded by the fees it brought and so had little impact on the budget.

Resident Craig Curley spoke out about the overall spending increase. He said residents knew there would be a budget increase because of cuts last year to keep taxes low amid the pandemic. He said what the town was contemplating was too high, calling it “audacious and disrespectful” to the residents, and that the items cut last year should be reintroduced gradually.

“People are still hurting,” he said.

The finance board is set to vote on the budget 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday.