School spending draws more supporters than critics at budget hearing

With emotional pleas to educate children and financial appeals based on schools as the foundation of real estate values, a chorus of 10 school supporters outnumbered a trio of tax-hike skeptics at Monday’s budget hearing.
“The economic engine of our town is the quality of schools,” said Sandra Mahoney of Wild Turkey Court. “I moved here for our schools and the only reason I’m remaining in Connecticut is the quality of education my four children receive here.”
“What we spend, it doesn’t match our mission statement. It doesn’t match what we want to do for our children,” said Laurie Bellagamba of Sprucewood Lane. “... We have to keep up with a changing world. Education is changing dramatically.”
The other side of the argument was also presented.
“I have a $900,000 investment in Ridgefield — it used to be a $1.1-million investment, but its value has slipped,” said Rich Fasanelli of Gay Road. “... Right now I’m paying $17,000 in taxes, over 2% of the value of the house. I think that number needs to be capped.”
With the budget for town departments already down to 0% — actually, -0.01%, a $5,000 decrease, according to First Selectman Rudy Marconi — debate focused on the requested 3.6% increase in school spending, and budget boosters outnumbered tax critics 10 to 3.
About 50 Ridgefielders were sprinkled around East Ridge Middle School’s auditorium, listening to the two-hour public hearing on a proposed $148-million town and school budget for 2019-20.
Spending growth
Marconi spoke on the proposed $36 million for town departments, $1,840,000 for roads and $11 million for debt service.
Worried about the impact the federal tax changes would have on Ridgefielders, the selectmen began working on their 0% increase last year, offering a retirement incentive that amounted to 75% of a year’s salary to nonunion and clerical employees. The result was a reduction of 7.34 positions, he said.
Health insurance was a problem. “We’re looking at a $235,000 increase — that’s about 8%,” Marconi said. “We were looking at a lot more.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. William Collins described the $98,423,760 proposed school budget — up 3.6% from this year’s allocation of $95 million. Of the 3.6% increase proposed, 2.76% would be required for “salary and benefits just to maintain the status quo,” Collins said. This included $48.5 million for salaries of certified educators (up 0.96%), $10.8 million for non-certified salaries (up 0.47%) and $19.7 million for benefits (up 1.33%).
Collins said the school budget had already been cut. Initial requests from building administration and department heads came in at 5.76% increase. The central administration had reduced that to 3.43%. Then the school board had added back a supervisor for the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program, as well as an elementary art teacher position, and money for renovations to the high school restrooms and other building repair projects.
Finance board Chairman Dave Ulmer said the town’s financial outlook was continuing to strengthen since the recession that followed the crash of 2008. The town’s unemployment rate was 3.2%, down from a peak of 6.3% in 2011. “3.2% — that’s a ballpark of what it was before the recession,” Ulmer said.
The median household income in Ridgefield had risen steady from $143,107 in 2011 to $151,399 in 2017 — the most recent year for which figures are available.
However, the town’s grand list or tax base had grown just 0.60% — enough to generate about $800,000 in additional taxes to cover spending increases.
“Anything over $800,000 is going to have to be found in revenues somewhere, or it’s going to have to be funded by the taxpayers,” Ulmer said.
Still, with good financial management by the town and schools, a surplus of more than $1.3 million is expected for the current fiscal year.
With the town’s “fund balance” above the finance board’s 8% to 9% guideline, he said, surpluses are returned to the taxpayer as revenue used to off-set spending and hold down tax increases.
Ulmer showed a chart of the last decade of spending increases, with school spending rising 31.6% while the selectmen’s town budget rose 23.7% — with the difference most dramatic in recent years.
“Those keep diverging,” Ulmer said.
School board meeting
The public hearing was followed by a special Board of Education meeting, designed to give Dr. Collins a sense of where to look for cuts, should the finance board‘s deliberations result in a reduction to the board’s $98 million request.
The consensus was that areas like curriculum writing and building maintenance have been cut year after year.
“I’ve never seen a curriculum department so lean,” Dr. Collins said, indicating that any reductions this year will probably have to come in staffing.
“We might have to be looking at people,” said Chairwoman Margaret Stamatis.
“It’s class size,” said Dr. Collins.
Board members mentioned elementary art teachers, literacy coaches.
“If we’re faced with deep cuts, that’s the stuff we have to look at,” said Sharon D’Orso.
Hearing voices
Sentiment at the hearing, however, was largely against a school cut.
“My husband and I moved here for the schools,” said Kerry Knop of Stebbins Close. “...Support this town’s biggest asset — its schools.”
Stephanie Sarup of South Salem Road said parents had been troubled by a plan to reduce funding for a program that brings in highly-trained educators from the Center for Children with Special Needs.
“Sixty children in the district receive services from that provider,” she said.
Collins said at the school board meeting following the hearing that the long-term plan was to train Ridgefield staff to replace the contracted specialists from the center, but later parents raised concerns the transition would be slowed — although he’d have to “find $100,000” to make it work.
Deidre Basile of Walnut Hill Road spoke as a co-president of the PTA Council. “We voted to support the Board of Education budget at 3.6% and ask the Board of Finance to allow the town to vote on it.”
“The quality of the schools can’t rely on the zip code,” said Mira Jensen of Marshall Road. “It requires continuous investment.”
“There’s no fluff in this budget,” said Stephanie Anderson. “Please let taxpayers vote on 3.6%.”
A few voices represented the other side of the argument.
Steve Jameson of West Mountain Road said Connecticut had been determined to be the second most fiscally troubled state government in the nation.
“We all know there’s a storm coming from the state,” he said.
“How can the Board of Selectmen come in for 0%, and the Board of Education comes in for 3.6%?” asked Ed Tyrrell of Pond Road. “Unlike the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Education doesn’t think they’re supposed to consider how these budgets affect taxpayers ... The taxpayers can’t afford a 3.6% increase in the Board of Education budget.”
Sandra Mahoney dismissed the comparisons of the schools’ 3.6% increase to the 0% budget sought by the selectmen for town departments.
“That’s comparing apples to oranges,” she said. “They do different things.”
“Our children are our future,” said Suzanne Sherter of Haviland Road. “Our children need the support. Our teachers need the support. Our buildings need the support.”