Fairfield school audit cites millions in potential savings
An operational audit of Fairfield's public schools that recommends changes like offering only extended-day kindergarten classes, increasing and reorganizing the administrative staff and requiring high school students to opt out of a bus seat if they plan on driving to school drew a standing-room-only crowd of teachers and parents to Tuesday's Board of Education meeting.
The school board member did not take any action on the report, which was distributed to them just that night.
The fact that many attendees were forced to stand in the hallway or sit on the floor displeased Kate Daniello, the head of We the People of Fairfield. In an e-mail to the Fairfield Citizen, Daniello said that school board Chairman John Mitola knew that 160 teachers would be attending, but declined to move the meeting to a larger location.
Daniello said she had arrived at the meeting in school board headquarters on Kings Highway about 15 minutes late
"I feel Mr. Mitola as chairman of the BOE seriously blundered in determining not to use the (Ludlowe Middle School) auditorium for this meeting and as a taxpayer I sincerely hope it never happens again," Daniello said.
Mitola said Wednesday he was not aware during the meeting that people were standing in the hallway. He said he was told that the room could hold between 200 and 250 people and, "I made a judgment call." To move the meeting location, Mitola said, would cost about $500. He said the lack of adequate space for the crowd "certainly wasn't done on purpose. I thought we could accommodate everyone. I apologize if people weren't able to be in the room."
The audit itself, received by board members and district staff that night, could potentially save the Board of Education several million dollars if all of the 74 recommendations are implemented.
One of the largest savings, $1.7 million, could be achieved if the district switches from the house system at the high schools to a principal-led school, according to Tatia Prieto, one of the consultants from Prismatic Services Inc., the firm that conducted the audit.
"We look at what's best for the students," Prieto said, and said the ratio of commendations found by the consultants -- the district was credited with 25 commendations, or things it is doing well -- to recommendations for change is typical. "The district is moving in the direction in a lot of areas," she said.
One recommendation prompted Supt. of Schools David Title to ask several times if he was hearing it correctly. The reports suggests the school district reorganize the central office staff and even increase the number of employees in the administrative office by 2.55 people. "We think we're recommending something more streamlined, that makes clearer the chain of command," Prieto said of the proposal for more staff.
The suggestion is to have all the principals, a technology manager, a chief academic office, a chief operations officer and a new ombudsman report directly to the superintendent. The ombudsman is needed because the district has a "very involved" parent population, Prieto said, and often administrators have to disrupt their work to address the concerns of one parent.
Other cost savings could include switching to a strictly extended-day kindergarten instead of the current blend of kindergarten schedules, which Prieto said should also improve student achievement. Other ideas call for changing start times at schools to save on transportation costs and increasing the cost of school lunches.
Many recommendations, Prieto said, have no costs or savings, but would improve or streamline operations.
School board members agreed to have the finance subcommittee review the changes and bring forward those that may be quickly implemented. Prieto said it is not realistic to expect all the recommendations adopted at one time; it could take at least two years.
Anne Pasco, president of the Fairfield Education Association, said she and the union's leadership team are reviewing the recommendations. "It is my position that the board should hold a special meeting to openly question and discuss the audit report," she said Wednesday.
Some of the recommendations, Pasco cautioned, "would radically change the educational process in the district."
The education system in town, she said, is not broken, and took several generations of hard work. "Dismantling it can be done very quickly," she said. "When the unique becomes commonplace, it will be too late. It will never be unique again."
Title said he wants to review the report with his staff and department heads to solicit their reactions, but added he sees some things that may be able to be included in the coming budget cycle. "Then, we need to come up with a longer-term plan," he said.
First Selectman Kenneth Flatto said Wednesday he hasn't had a chance to look at the audit yet, but said he looks forward to reviewing the recommendations. "I'm very glad the Board of Education did conduct this audit of their operations and I hope it will be beneficial."
He said a similar audit of Fairfield's municipal government operations is expected to be completed in the next two weeks.
The entire 260-page audit report can be found online at www.fairfield.k12.ct.us.