Schools’ big budget request a challenge for Fairfield
FAIRFIELD — The town allocates more than half of its entire budget toward education, and residents often tout the quality of Fairfield schools as a primary reason for moving into town.
But with a 5 percent increase in their budget ask — totaling $182.3 million and the largest in 10 years — for the 2020 fiscal year, town officials are looking at how all the pieces will fit to also keep taxes low.
First Selectman Mike Tetreau, said the department heads have worked in order to accommodate shrinking state aid and unfunded mandates.
“It’s a challenge. The 5 percent increase is not easy,” Tetreau said.
Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones’ proposed budget was approved unanimously by the Board of Education on Jan. 24.
Jones praised her team’s work and advocated that the budget “focuses on what matters” with a majority of the increase allotted to contract increases, utilities and maintenance projects.
“It’s hard to find a top-level economist who doesn’t acknowledge the importance of great schools on local economy,” Jones said.
To accommodate the schools’ budget request of 3.1 percent last year, the town cut down on asphalt paving and sidewalk maintenance, which went down by $500,000 and $20,000, respectively. This year, the town can’t put off efforts to maintain the sidewalks.
“The No. 1 question for this budget year is ‘can the town afford that?’ ” Tetreau said, also referencing a nearly $4 million decreasein state aid in recent years. “I’m certainly a longtime supporter of our educational system.”
Tetreau makes his budget public Feb. 26, with a presentation to follow March 4.
When asked about an estimate on a possible budget increase for the town’s side, Tetreau said he was not yet ready to provide one.
This year, the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance will hold separate budget hearings during March. The Representative Town Meeting’s hearings will take place in April.
Board of Finance Chairman Tom Flynn said the board considers three things as they pore over numbers: is it fair to the taxpayer, what state actions could impact the budget and does it provide appropriate town services.
“It’s always important to go to the table with open minds and hear from individual department heads regarding their budget requests,” Flynn said.
Regarding the education budget, Flynn said he had asked the Board of Education in previous years to look at structural changes regarding their services.
Flynn also cited decreases in state aid toward wealthier towns in Fairfield County and that the state budget, which is approved after the town’s, would also have an impact.
“We don’t know how the pieces will fit together yet,” Flynn said.