School supporters dominate budget hearing
On the coronavirus and the related economic shutdown having brought Ridgefield to extraordinarily challenging times, there was wide agreement. But folks at Monday night’s Board of Finance public hearing differed on how that should influence decisions on the 2020-21 town and school budget.
People arguing the difficult times are all the more reason to support school spending outnumbered those favoring lower budgets and taxes by 28-to-7.
“Our children are going to have increased academic and social and emotional needs,” said Stephanie Anderson. “Now is not the time to cut.”
The school board had originally requested a 3.96 percent increase, and school officials have said since that a “carry forward” budget with no new programs would need about a 2.96 percent increase. They have looked at cut scenarios that would get the increase down to 2.76%. The Board of Selectmen has recommended that school spending be allowed to increase 1.5 percent.
“Please give our schools a fighting chance as we enter an unprecedented time,” Anderson said. “Please support 2.96…”
Sean Archambault offered a different reaction to the extraordinary times.
“We just feel now is not the time to increase the budget,” said Archambault. “It’s not a cut we’re talking about here, we’re talking about a lack of an increase.”
Archambault also said he and his wife had gone to Ridgefield schools, as had their two kids.
“We’ve had to do without — art on a cart, music on the stage, pay for play,” he said, reviewing past changes prompted by budget cuts and overcrowding. “The kids came out fine. One’s a teacher, one’s a programmer for IBM. It did not kill them.”
Monday’s hearing kicked off four nights of budget meetings for the finance board, expected to culminate Thursday in votes that will set the town’s budget and taxes for 2020-21 — with no referendum vote by townspeople, under procedures approved by the governor for the coronavirus crisis.
The hearing began with presentations from First Selectman Rudy Marconi, School Superintendent Susie Da Silva and finance board Chairman Dave Ulmer.
Marconi said the selectmen had voted to seek a 1.2 percent increase in spending by town departments — police, fire, highway — and make a “nonbinding recommendation” for a 1.5 percent increase in schools spending. They project a $750,000 drop in non-tax revnues, while “uncollectable” taxes would grow from 1.3 to 2 percent.
The selectmen want the finance board to tap the town’s $15 million fund balance to finance those spending increases while keeping the tax increase at zero.
It would require more than $3 million from the fund balance. But it could be done within the finance board’s policy — which calls for maintaining the fund balance at between 8 to 9 percent of the total budget.
“If we have 1.2, and 1.5 for schools, and 2 percent uncollectible, and a reduction of $750,000 in non-tax revenue,” Marconi said, “we would need from the Board of Finance, from the fund balance about $3.37 million — bringing the fund balance down to 8.19 percent.”
The selectmen had recommended a 1.5 percent school budget increase, but if the schools save additional money this year, Marconi said he could see allocating it to the schools for coronavirus-related expenses.
“Any other savings, they could help defray the costs,” he said.
“A lot of people are very concerned about our schools, and we are, too,” Marconi said. “No one on the Board of Selectmen is looking to decimate our education system. We’ve all worked too many years gettng it to where it is. But at the same time, we felt it was critical to understand unemployment, understand the economy, see where our stores are here on Main Street.”
Superintendent Da Silva said she and the school board were there “to advocate on behalf of the needs of our students, and provide clarity on the risks and associated impact of any substantial reduction made to the Board of Education budget.”
The school officials seek budget increases to maintain Ridgefield’s top quality education for the benefit of the town and especially the students.
She showed a chart placing Ridgefield’s per-pupil spending at $19,408 — 58th in the state. The other towns Ridgefield is usually compared to in “DGR-A” ranged from Redding at $24,166 per student and 12th in the state, to Easton at $2,636 per student, 37th.
“We serve children,” she said, “and with that service comes a great privilege as well as a great responsibility.”
The schools must deal with rising costs and more and more mandates from state and federal governments — mandates which usually require money to be spent.
“Students’ needs have shifted over the past several years, and yet funding has not,” she said
Cuts can end up increasing costs in the long run.
“The district is planning for the known risks,” Da Silva said, “and the impact of not intervening with these known risks will cost us far more.”
Finance board Chairman Ulmer said the town does have a $15 million fund balance, equal to roughly 10 percent of this year’s $148 million budget. And some could be used compensate for revenues that are being lost due to the coronavirus shutdown — but it isn’t unlimited.
“You simply cannot sustain enough fund balance to cover increasing revenue declines year over year over year,” Ulmer said.
“As challenging as fiscal ’21 is, we could be having even more challenging discussions next year at this time.”
Speakers from the public focused on the school budget — and mostly supported it.
A petition supporting at least the 2.96 percent increase — the budget needed to continue current programming — was signed by 952 people, Rayda Krell said.
“I urge you not to ignore these voices. These are the voices of engaged Ridgefield citizens who believe our schools are a cornerstone of our town,” Krell said. “You can choose to adequately fund our schools and know you have broad support.”
“It’s unprecedented what we’re dealing with right now,” said Jason Rice, arguing that in such times schools were high priority spending.
“Make the right choice for our students today, and be creative about the things we don’t need to invest in,” he said.
Pro-school speakers have dominated public comment at previous meetings.
Rice was among many speakers who argued that pro-school groundswell carried weight in a year when there will be no referendum vote, and final budget decisions are being made by the finance board.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of people who have made themselves heard,” he said. “This is the only outlet we have — we’re not allowed to vote at the budget referendum.”.
“They have done much with little,” Mary Ellen Foley said of the town’s educators.
“2.96 is needed just to maintain the status quo,” Foley said. “...1.5 will decimate the Ridgefield Public Schools, and students will return to school post-pandemic with less supports and at a time they need more.”
Deep and harmful
“I hope you’ll consider the consequences of cuts that are too deep and harmful to our schools and our community,” Catherine Mouget told the finance board.
“I really urge you to listen to the voices of your town,” said Sara Collins. “This is what your taxpayers are asking for, and this is what we want our money to fund.”
“I look at our school budget as an investment, not an expense,” said Paul Wronski.”Great schools do wonders for our children. They’re also a halo for our home values.”
“By not fully funding our schools, you will be doing a disservice to every homeowner,” said Natalie Vecchio. “To cut the budget is penny wise and pound foolish.”
Malcolm Karlan said Ridgefield spends less on schools than other nearby towns — and that’s available to people shopping for houses.
“There is no fat in Ridgefield’s Board of Education budget,” Karlan said. “We’re in a position of trying to catch up.”
House shoppers will find out if Ridgeifled shortchanges it’s schools.
“Families look to move to Fairfield County have a great deal of information,” he said.
Ed Tyrrell was among the seven voices arguing that spending should be kept down.
“We are in a national emergency,” Tyrrell said. “Unemployment is skyrocketing. We’re in a recession. Revenues are plummeting.. The Board of Finance should do everything possible to have taxes remain flat this year...
“The fund balance should not be used to prop up unnecessary spending by the Board of Education,” he added. “I’m not asking you to cut the Board of Education budget, I’m asking you to give a $1.5 million increase over this year’s budget.”
Laurie Christiansen made a similar paint.
“I support the Board of Selectmen’s recommendation for a zero percent tax increase,” she said.
She thought more effort should be put into negotiating givebacks from the teachers union.
She said she’d served on PTA board and valued schools, but now worked at Founders Hall and knew some of the senior citizens on fixed incomes.
“Please consider all of our residents during this pandemic,” she said.
“Once the funding is gone, it is doubly hard to get it back,” said Linda Hains, a Scotts Ridge Middle School teacher. “...Please put this year’s $800,000 in savings, mainly from schools being closed for three months, back in the school budget.”
A former school board chairwoman, Frances Walton, said she’s no longer a school official and next year would have no children in the system — but she supports the school budget.
“The first selectman has noted,” she said, “...the schools are the economic engine of the town. They are a major employer,” Walton said. “…We make a contract with our school families: Move to Ridgefield, pay your share and those taxes will support a fine education system.”
Michael Collins appealed to idealism.
“Everything we do is to make the world better than when we came into it. You felt the urge to serve your community,” he said. “…Give the future leaders of tomorrow every advance that we can.”
Arlyn Kilduff supported a 2.76 percent increase to maintain the school program.
“We do know students are going to need more social and emotional and academic supports,” Kilduff said.
Stephen Jamion wanted no tax increase.
“People are truly hurting right now. Businesses are really hurting right now. Taxpayer are hurting,” he said. “...I’ve had to lay off three or four of my people because of COVID,” he said.
“...Property taxes, they’re too high as a proportion of home values. They grow every year.”
Schools have votes
Sandra Mahoney said she’s heard town officials speak of a silent majority wanting cuts, while school supporters were dismissed as a lobbying group.
Last year, the school budget passed with more than 1,100 votes in favor, to fewer then 600 against it.
“The silent majority were not only outnumbered, they were outvoted,” she said.
“Uncertainty is toxic for our economic recovery,” Mahoney added. “The one place we can provide some certainty is in support of our schools.”
Operating the schools in the age of the coronavirus will get more costly, Douglas Collins said.
“I don’t think we can hobble our schools now,” said Collins, “when we don’t know what the effect will be in six or nine months.”
“I support a one percent increase in property taxes,” said Michael McNamara, a music teacher at the high school.
He’s a typical Ridgefield homeowner, with a $12,000 annual tax bill, he said. A one percent increase would be $120 a year, or $10 on his monthly escrow payments.
“There is no way $10 a month will be the reason we lose our home and have to leave town.” he said.
Angela Rice said PTAs were wrongly accused of organizing pro-budget speakers.
“I hear a lot of people talking about the PTAs being organized to speak ... PTAs are not allow to do that,” she said. “The only organizing PTAs can do is send out information saying when meetings are. People can email their friends. People can speak out. But there’s no organizing by the PTA…”
She backed the school budget.
“It is a no-frills, very lean budget,” she said.
Cheryl Osher said the coronavirus isn’t gone, and adjusting to it safely will be an expensive.
“The world is telling us this isn’t over, there are predictions of a second wave of COVID,” she said.
All kind of radical changes to school operation might result.
“We need to prepare for a hybrid version of schools,” she said.
Melissa Ettere said people would be looking to move from cities to suburbs — with good schools.
“People will be fleeing the cities … They’re savvy,” she said.
“This is the moment to further reinvest, not divest, in our schools,”
“No one knows what the future will hold,” said Mira Jensen. “...Needs will be even greater, which we don’t even know of.”
Lin Jamison opposed a budget increase. “The best way to attract people to this town is to be fiscally responsible,” she said.
Adults should be setting an example for the children, she said. “Teach them to save and not spend irresponsibly.”
Colleen McGuirk supported school spending. “This 2.76 percent only keeps the status quo from year to year,” she said. Budget cuts below that level “will result in reductions to programs students will need when we return to normal.”
“I’m asking you to be mindful of the fact that we don’t have a vote — this is our vote,” said Robin Collins. “...My point is to support the Board of Education budget in whatever way possible.”
Laurie Bellagamba said the schools would need funding to deal with all sorts of problems created by the virus.
“These past three months have created a whole new world,” she said. “...This virus has placed enormous challenges to our school system, but meeting the needs of our students must remain a top priority.”.