Guest Column / More cuts to Fairfield school budget could cause long-term harm
The Representative Town Meeting is about to undertake a crucial vote on the Board of Education budget that will determine what kind of school district Fairfield will be next year and perhaps for years to come.
I understand the concerns raised by many taxpayers that these are tough economic times, and many families and senior citizens are struggling to continue to live in our town and make ends meet. That is why the BOE has worked hard to hire independent auditors to examine our budget, looked for savings each step of the way and struggled to sustain the budget cuts in recent years without impacting programs, despite a growth in student population. School Superintendent David Title and the BOE have worked hard to put forth a lean budget for the upcoming year despite a growing student population and fixed costs. That budget has already been cut by $2 million. Any further cuts will significantly impact our education system. Here's why.
Flat budgets/enrollment: This has been the case for two years, as the fiscal year 2009-10 and 2010-11 school budgets averaged a 0.2 percent increase, while student population grew from 9,980 students in 2008-09 to 10,068 this year and projected at 10,223 next year.
We were able to sustain these cuts because our teachers and administrators agreed to zero percent wage increases, and we were forced to defer needed technology and maintenance expenses. However, deferments on important maintenance and technology needs and no wage increases for employees cannot realistically be expected year after year.
Previous cuts: Town boards have already cut over $2 million, meaning that the money to fund fixed costs must come from cuts in staff and/or programs.
The BOE budget clearly and unequivocally details the needs of the district seeking a 4.9 percent increase for a total monetary increase of $6.9 million. Of that, approximately $6.3 million is attributable to fixed costs -- the bulk of which is in salaries and benefits the BOE is obligated to fund. Also during the budget formulation, Title and his team found and recommend to the BOE approximately $866,500 in savings to reduce the proposed budget increase. There is little discretionary money in this budget.
Where savings could be achieved without harming the educational program, Title and the BOE achieved those savings. The boards of Selectmen and Finance have cut the education budget $2 million despite the fixed costs. This leaves the BOE with less money to spend on education programs even before the RTM acts on the budget request.
Noticeable reductions: The $2 million already cut will be noticeable. Although the entire BOE needs to weigh in on where these cuts will occur, Title indicated that he will recommend they be absorbed "across the board." Because staff represents 80 percent of the budget, cuts in staff costs could account for $1.6 million -- or 80 percent -- of the $2 million cut. That equates to a cut of 23 certified positions or 46 non-certified positions (or some combination). The result: fewer staff members to serve a growing student population, leading to a possible increase in class sizes and possible reductions in our ability to offer some high school courses.
Also, extracurricular activities may be trimmed and/or student athletes may be forced to "pay to play." Student counseling loads for guidance, school psychologists, or social workers could also be increased, resulting in less service for students and families.
Cutbacks in noncertified personnel such as paraprofessionals and secretaries are likely to occur. While the BOE would seek to minimize the impact of these cuts, even at $2 million the cuts would be noticeable; and if the RTM votes to cut the amount more it gets worse.
Unjustified cuts: Any further cuts cannot be justified. I sincerely hope that the RTM realizes this in the days ahead. In fact, I have not heard any reasonable recommendation from any RTM member as to where additional cuts should be made. To simply throw out a further budget cut number is irresponsible, especially in light of the RTM's knowledge of the current fixed costs the BOE bears. The RTM knows these costs all too well, having voted over a year ago to ratify the current union agreements with the teachers and administrators. The RTM knew -- or should have known-that for the upcoming year it would need to adequately fund these contracts that it voted in favor of. The RTM cannot have it both ways. A vote in favor of additional cuts is quite simply a vote to reduce the quality of educational programs we can deliver in the year ahead.
During the budget process there have been accusations from some elected officials and members of the public that the BOE has "raided" $1.6 million from the medical reserve fund and that this amount should be cut from this year's proposed budget. Such comments are simply untrue. The BOE, unlike the town, has always fully funded its share of the medical reserve as directed by its medical risk management consultant. Because the BOE fully funded its share and because it has enjoyed good claims experience over the years the fund has been overfunded.
Under those circumstances, it was unnecessary for the BOE to contribute the amount it thought it might have to contribute during budget formulations. This allowed the BOE to reduce its contribution to the fund and use those monies to educate our children. Such fiscal acts were responsible and would have been undertaken by any competent fiscal officer. Moreover, when the BOE sought to reduce the amount of its contribution from what it originally anticipated it would need to contribute it did so only after consultation with the town and the town's chief fiscal officer. This was not some "midnight raid" as some have portrayed it to be but was done with the full knowledge and blessing of the Town.
It is my hope that the RTM looks at the BOE budget in a rational manner, understanding the facts and make no further cuts.
That is their duty as elected officials.
John Mitola is chairman of the Fairfield Board of Education.