School supporters outnumber tax axe advocates

Cuts to the school budget are the main subject of debate during the public comment portion of recent selectmen's meetings.

Cuts to the school budget are the main subject of debate during the public comment portion of recent selectmen's meetings.

Macklin Reid / Hearst Connecticut Media

Spare the school budget! A strong education system is the town’s greatest asset No, cuts are needed — zero percent! — these are unprecedented times.

Parents, teachers, taxpayers, Ridgefield citizens of all sorts have been offering views on the budget decisions that will be made by town boards this year, with the usual Annual Town Meeting and budget referendum called off due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Citizens will have a final chance to have their say at a Board of Finance public hearing scheduled for Monday, May 18, with public participation via Zoom.

Support for the schools had been the dominant theme of the comments, although there is a counter current of people calling for budget cuts.

“Fat has already been trimmed from the budget,” said Elizabeth Reynolds. “...In the aftermath of this global crisis, children will return to school and need more support, not less.”

In the public comment portion of the selectmen’s meeting Wednesday, April 29 — a “virtual” gathering that citizens at home joined through Zoom — 19 people addressed the board on budget issues. Of those, 15 were worried about reductions in school spending, and three urged the board to cut budgets with a goal of holding down taxes. One was a finance board member offering overview comments.

The selectmen met again Thursday night, April 30, with the discussion focused on the capital spending. But in the public comments portion of the meeting the school budget was again the center of discussion. Thursday night, eight members of the public spoke, with seven of them worried about the impact of school cuts. One urged the board to make cuts and hold down taxes.

Risk to students

“To reduce the school budget this year would be a huge mistake,” said Linda Haines. “It would be placing our students’ lives at risk.”

Haines described herself as a Ridgefiled taxpayer and teacher to Wednesday night’s meeting.

“With social distancing a reality for our future,” she said, “...we may be required to cut class sizes to keep students more distant.”

Karin Fallon was on the other side of the debate.

“I’m a supporter of the Ridgefield Public Schools, having served as PTA president or co-president at all three levels,” she began.

But Fallon said she couldn’t understand why Ridgefield has nine school buildings — a high school, two middle schools, and six elementary schools.

“The 2020-21 enrollment is housed in the same number of buildings as in 2004,” she said.

There are some 980 fewer students “which happens to be twice the capacity of Branchville Elementary School,” she said.

“Today, it was announced Connecticut has the second highest rate in the nation of jobless claims,” she said.

“Many of surrounding towns have announced zero percent budget increases,” Fallon said. “... Please keep our budget at zero percent.”

Stephanie Anderson was another parent worried about school cuts.

“The Board of Education budget request was very lean to begin with,” she said. “…Education will be facing unprecedented challenges next year.”

The coronavirus lockdown could have a huge effect on children — and what schools will have to do to help them.

“We have no idea how many new students are going to be requiring both academic and social and emotional support,” Anderson said.

She envisioned all kinds of potential added costs, from putting in more “hand-washing stations” to higher legal fees as more parents sue to ensure the hard-pressed schools give their children the education they need.

“Will we be required to run buses at half capacity?” she asked.

“The Board of Education budget is already at a huge risk with so many unknowns next year,” Anderson said.

Alana DeVito spoke of the schools’ importance to Ridgefield’s economic future.

“The main reason we chose this town was the strong school system,” she said. “...If we start to cut teachers and programming, this district will no longer attract new families.”

One percent tax hike

Sandra Mahoney said she wouldn’t mind a one percent increase in her property taxes to maintain needed support for the school system.

But she’d be troubled if town officials reduced the school budget to a “zero percent” spending increase, as has been talked of.

“Zero percent — the ramifications of that are unthinkable,” she said.

Michael McNamara, a Ridgefield teacher who has spoken at previous meetings — such as the tri-board two weeks ago — also urged a small tax increase to protect the schools from cuts.

“I moved to this district and busted my butt to be able to live in this town as a teacher in order to put my kids through this world class education system that we have,” he said.

McNamara said his home is pretty close to the median house value in Ridgefield, and he pays about $12,000 a year in taxes.

“An increase of 1 percent is $10 a month — ten bucks!” he said.

McNamara said he’d be “happy to pay $10 a month” to protect the schools from the kind of cutting that would be necessitated by the talked-of “zero percent” school spending increase.

“Zero percent — that is what is unconscionable, not a 1 percent tax raise,” McNamara said.

“I’m asking you to please, please at least give us the status quo,” he said. “I can’t imagine what these kids are going to be up against.”

“I know this is a really rough budget year,” said Julie Henderson, who described herself as a Ridgefield High School teacher with a daughter who’d graduated with the RHS class of 2019.

“Teachers have creatively navigated all the changes thrown at them,” she said.

“As a teacher I really cannot wait for school to reopen.”

Cutting teachers and increasing class sizes wasn’t the solution to budget issues, she said.

“Let’s think creatively how to save money without reducing services to our students,” Henderson said.

Thursday reflections

Thursday night some speakers responded to what they perceived as the selectmen’s tilt toward budget cutting in Wednesday night’s discussions — especially in view of the revised budget procedures.

“I’m very disappointed in the discussion around the Board of Education budget last night,” said Sara Putnam.

With the budget processes changed under Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders, she said, there would be “an added democratic challenge” — town boards would put together and approve a budget without voting by town citizens at referendum or town meeting.

The selectmen didn’t seem to understand “the grave reality of what a 1.5 percent increase or less would mean for our schools,” Putnam said.

“Eighty percent of the Board of Education budget is the people that make up the education of the children. This includes the teachers union-negotiated rates, which the Board of Education did share are not up for renegotiation — Dr. Da Silva’s team did already investigate that,” she said.

“I hear the Board of Selectmen wanting to avoid cutting town employees,” Putnam said. “At a 1.5 percent budget increase, this is exactly what you’ll be asking the Board of Education to do.”

Teacher raises

Linda Lavelle offered a skeptical view of teachers’ already contracted pay increases.

“I’m a taxpayer, a longtime resident of Ridgefield. I’m astonished at the lack of compassion and understanding by some parents and teachers and administration at the pandemic’s effect on our town,” Lavelle said. “Connecticut has over 20 percent unemployment. At this moment there are over 800 people in Ridgefield who have lost their jobs. I don’t see any compassion for these people...

“Teachers’ raises at a time when people are unemployed is unconscionable,” Lavelle said. “I don’t know how they can push for raises when people are trying to figure out how to pay for the mortgage and buy food.”

The implications of changes in budget procedures troubled Elizabeth Reynolds, as well.

“These are crucial decisions that will not be put to a town vote as in the past,” said Reynolds, who said she spoke “as the mother of three children in the public school system.”

Reducing the school budget below the Board of Education’s requested 3.96 percent increase could result in “larger class sizes, which are already quite large,” she said.

The cuts could not only mean the elimination of proposed new positions “it will also result in the layoff of existing teachers,” she said.

“Cutting the Board of Education budget worries me a great deal,” Reynolds said.

“It would mean cutting entire departments such as world languages, art, music.”

Past cuts

“I’m a taxpayer, a Ridgefield High School parent, and an educator with the Ridgefield Public Schools,” said Robin Collins.

Budget reduction measures taken four years ago had already led to a “reduction in the teaching force” over the following three years.

“Fourteen positions were eliminated,” she said.

While there has been talk about declining student enrollment, she said, the demographers’ projections show “an increase in enrollment in the long term.”

Collins also addressed various town officials’ observations that the school budget tends to increase at a faster rate than the town budget. There are reasons for that, she said.

“Schools are at the mercy of state and federal mandates, many of which are unfunded,” Collins said. “The basic cost of educating an individual student continues to rise, and never ever decreases.”

“Our normal democratic process has been shortchanged,” said Angela Rice.

“I listened in, and the vast majority of comments I hear are in support of saving the Board of Education budget,” Rice said. “I’m just asking you, as a constituent, that you listen to the voters and citizens of this town.”