Hines Sight / Heeding the call for fiscal responsibility
I will be voting "no."
On Tuesday, my nay vote will be in answer to the referendum question, which I paraphrase: Shall the annual town budget be increased $800,000? The referendum challenges the Representative Town Meeting's reduction in the amount of increase for the Board of Education's budget for fiscal year 2011-2012. On May 3, the RTM, by a 22-20 vote, approved an education budget of $145,680,350, cutting the requested amount by $800,000. That decrease was on top of a $2 million cut previously approved by the boards of Selectmen and Finance.
My vote does not mean I am anti-education, anti-child or anti-teacher. My vote is pro-community, pro-fiscal responsibility and pro-priority setting. Anyone who has watched our town and school administrations operate over the last nearly 30 years -- as I have -- knows that we can spend money with wild abandon. Some of those expenditures indeed have been important and needed, such as for new schools or the refurbishing of them, better equipment for our public safety departments, maintaining our parks and beaches or protecting our environment.
But it's time to apply the brakes.
You have to be totally out of touch with reality to think we can continue to dip into the trough containing taxpayer dollars. The economy continues to lag. Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor released its report showing that only 54,000 jobs were added in May nationwide. Additionally, it noted that the unemployment rate rose to 9.1 percent from 9.0. Connecticut's unemployment rate also is 9.1 percent. At the same time, senior citizens' investments have dwindled and their Social Security benefits have not risen.
The New York Times article "Hiring in U.S. Slowed in May With 54,000 Jobs Added" stated, "Job growth for April and March was revised downward. State and local governments, struggling with severe budget shortfalls, continued to shed jobs in May. They are expected to keep laying off workers for months to come. Private companies added jobs, but the pace of hiring fell to its lowest level in a year."
For further evidence of tough times for communities across the country and what they are doing to keep spending down, one only has to turn to the Wall Street Journal article "Public Schools Charge Kids for Basics, Frills" published on May 25. It stated, "Public schools across the country, struggling with cuts in state funding, rising personnel costs and lower tax revenues, are shifting costs to students and their parents by imposing or boosting fees for everything from enrolling in honors English to riding the bus."
The articles went on to report that "Public-school administrators say the fees -- some of which are waived for low-income families -- allow them to continue to offer specialty classes and activities that would otherwise fall to the budget ax. Some parents support that approach, saying they'd rather pay for honors physics or drama than see those opportunities eliminated altogether.
"Some educators, too, argue that fees are good public policy. In a time of fiscal austerity, they say it's not fair to ask taxpayers to fund an all-inclusive education that offers Advanced Placement Art History, junior varsity golf and fourth-year German with little regard for the cost."
During its discussion about budget adjustments last month, the Fairfield Board of Education rejected Superintendent David Title's recommendation for "pay-for-play" fees to help satisfy the $2.8 million cut to next year's budget allocation. But it will institute a parking fee for students at the high schools, as well as other cost-cutting measures.
The Wall Street Journal article further pointed out that the cost of public education has risen steadily and that the average per-pupil spending has increased 46 percent over the last 20 years.
The Connecticut Department of Education revealed in April that the per-pupil expenditure for Fairfield in 2009-10 was $14,457.58. That's $14,457.58. A hefty sum.
To reconcile the budget cuts, the priority should be the classroom. I continue to have a hard time understanding the need for a top-heavy central office for the school district. In a cursory look on the district's website, www.fairfieldschools.org, I counted at least 50 administrators and associated staffers; granted, some of them are part-time or are full-time teachers who receive a stipend for their additional tasks. I couldn't get a more accurate count because at least one department (human resources, ironically) has nothing listed under "staff directory" and the number doesn't include the principals, assistant principals, deans, headmasters, housemasters and others in the individual schools. Do we really need 50 or more people doing desk jobs out of central office? Wouldn't that money be better spent elsewhere in the schools? The money we spend on the administration is mind-boggling. Take a look at the list of the top 50 wage earners for 2010 in the school system. The top five made more than $150,000. The highest paid made nearly $170,000 and the lowest paid $107,000.
Doesn't anyone else find this disturbing?
Despite what the school administration and the pro-referendum forces say about the $2.8 million cut to the budget, the Fairfield school system will not crumble into an abyss if the $800,000 is not restored. Over the years, the administration has been quick to point out how many Fairfield high school graduates go on to four-year colleges, many of them Ivy League institutions. Did they get there because every Fairfield classroom had a smart board? Not likely.
Students who are willing to learn, teachers who know how to engage their pupils and parents who are consistently involved are the ingredients that make a quality, solid public school education. And for those students who fall short of the goals, get them the extra help they need. We have weathered these budget storms before, and the school system always has risen to challenge because of committed students, teachers and parents.
Patricia A. Hines can be reached at email@example.com. She also can be followed at http://blog.ctnews.com/hines.