Fairfield school board members see little budget fat to trim
In tough economic times, school budgets can end up looking like the "after" picture in those "before and after" diet commercials -- far thinner than they used to be.
First Selectman Kenneth Flatto has noted that Superintendent of Schools David Title's proposed 4.9 percent increase in the 2011-12 education budget is higher than in many other towns.
But school board members surveyed a day before they were scheduled to vote Tuesday night on the $148.5 million plan said they saw little room to cut.
Of the 4.9 percent increase, 3 percent will cover contractual obligations, Chairman John Mitola said, adding that the spending plan is as lean as possible.
Board member Paul Fattibene said the increase is more than he would like, but there are "no real new initiatives adding substantial cost."
Board member Perry Liu echoed those thoughts. "When I first saw it (the 4.9 percent) I was a little displeased it wasn't lower," he said. "But when I looked at the budget and went through it, I felt there wasn't much (that could be cut)."
The current school budget rose only 1.4 percent from the previous year, but that low percentage increase was achieved in part by teachers and administrators agreeing to a "zero percent increase" for one year. There is no such freeze in Title's latest plan
"There's nothing sexy in it this year," Mitola said. "And there's nothing too exciting from a technology standpoint."
While there is inequity among some of the district's schools as regards classroom Smart Boards, Title's budget does not include any funding for any more of them.
Moreover, Title rejected a request to replace 450 personal computers and scratched about $81,000 in Priority One maintenance projects
Mitola called the budget as trim as could be.
"It's a very lean budget, and I'm satisfied that what we're presenting (to the selectmen and finance board) later in the year) is the leanest budget possible," said Mitola. "I'll want to see what other board members have to say, but I don't think there is very much that can be cut from this budget."
At the board's meeting last week, Flatto said he thought the percentage increase in the school budget 80 to 90 percent of other school districts of which he is aware. Mitola disagrees with that claim. He said he looked into towns such as Westport, Trumbull, Darien, Greenwich and Norwalk and found increases ranging from 2 percent to 7 percent.
"We're right in line with what other districts are requesting based on my results of it," he said.
Board Vice Chairman Pam Iacono said if school officials face a hefty cut, as they did last year, it would be hard to cut and not affect programs.
Instead of looking only to cut costs, she said, it might be wise to look into some revenue-generating ideas, such as charging juniors and seniors for parking passes.
Iacono supports Title's proposal for an earlier start time at the high schools. It would save about $500,000 in busing costs. However, if fellow board members don't support the earlier high school starting time, "then you have to find $500,000 in savings somewhere else, and I don't know where that is at this point," Iacono said.
She added, "Do you want to get up and be in class at 7:30 a.m., or do you want to get rid of AP Algebra? The choice is you keep the AP class."
Board member Sue Dow opposes the earlier start time, saying "volumes of research" show teens do better with a later start. Teens today have much on their plates: homework, sports and clubs, and many, she said, are taking four and five advanced placement courses.
"They're up till all hours of the morning doing homework," she said. Title's budget assumes a 7:30 a.m. start time at the high school level. Presently, Fairfield Ludlowe High School's day begins at 7:40 a.m. while Fairfield Warde's kicks off at 7:50 a.m. Allowing Warde students to wake up 20 minutes later, said Dow, would make a world of difference in the children's education.
Told the start time change saves a half-million dollars, Dow would rather the two high school start time remain as is.
"All the wrongs should not now end up on the teens backs," said Dow, who noted a 2010 middle school level redistricting plan, with a "grandfathering" option, cost the district around $300,000 in busing funds.
Dow would have liked if there were more Smart Boards pegged for the district next year, as they are "phenomenal tools," but that's more the icing on the cake right now," she said.
"This is not the economy to purchase," Dow added.
With a lean budget already, what if hypothetically, the selectmen and finance board supported slashing the education budget by at least $3 million, as the two boards did last year?
"It would decimate our education system," said Dow. "You would destroy the educational system and once you do that, it takes years to come back."
Fattiebene said that if such a cut were repeated, programs, without a doubt, would be impacted.
"You can only have as good an education system as the town is willing to pay for," he said. "It's our job to education the children the best we can with the resources we're provided." However, limited resources, Fattibene said, can make that job difficult and challenging to accomplish.
Liu added it's the quality school system that people largely move to Fairfield for.
"We want people to continue to come into the town," he said.
Liu, like Iacono, believes school officials should start looking at creative ways of generating money or saving money. While Iacono supports charging teens for parking at the high school, Liu believes the Early Childhood Center at Fairfield Warde High School could possibly be relocated to open up room for possibly seven classrooms.
"We need to look at different things," Liu said.
The board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on Title's proposed budget in the Board of Education conference room, on the second floor of the office building at 501 Kings Highway East. The meeting will begin at 7:30 p.m.