A $2 million cut to the school budget was proposed, but voted down. Citizens asked questions: How long will taxpayers be paying off borrowing for capital expenditures? How many plows does the town have, anyway?
The major budget issues — town spending, school spending, capital questions — were sent to next Tuesday’s referendum. And voice votes approved almost $900,000 worth of construction projects and equipment purchases — the smaller stuff in the capital budget.
The Annual Town Meeting where all that happened drew a crowd of a little over 100 to the Ridgefield Playhouse auditorium Monday night, May 6 — registrars checking people in handed out 108 pale blue slips of paper to be held high for voting.
They were used once, on the evening’s most high-drama vote: A motion to reduce the $98,193,760 school budget that will go to voters in Tuesday’s referendum by $2,243,760.
The motion was made by veteran spending skeptic Ed Tyrrell, and seconded by John Early.
Tyrrell said the purpose of the proposed cut was to reduce the increase in the school budget from 3.36 percent to one percent over this year’s school spending.
“If the Board of Selectmen can proposed a budget with a 0% increase, the Board of Education can live with a one percent increase,” Tyrrell said.
“We should be looking a reduction,” Early said. “... Fewer students, and inflation has been low.”
When the legality of the motion was challenged, town officials were prepared to handle the question, referencing a 2017 opinion letter from town attorney Dave Grogins on the Annual Town Meeting’s authority to”decrease or delete any line item.”
Since Tyrrell had specified that the over $2 million reduction come out of the school board’s certified salaries line item — which he referenced by number — meeting moderator Sharon Dornfeld ruled that the motion was in order. (This was in contrast to a 2017 chair’s ruling, when a motion to lower the school budget had been ruled out of order because it did not specify a line to be reduced but simply addressed the entire school budget.)
Although her side had prevailed in the vote, Board of Education (BOE) Chairwoman Margaret Stamatis questioned the process that allows any citizen at the annual meeting to propose changes to budgets — and possibly deprive referendum voters of the chance to support or reject budgets that officials have worked long and hard on.
“Before the Monday night town Meeting, the BOE budget had been developed by the school building leaders and administration, vetted by the Superintendent and administrative team, discussed by the BOE over a three-month period in public meetings, presented to the public in two BOE public hearings and one BOF (Board of Finance) public hearing with public comment, reviewed and discussed by the Board of Selectman who provided a non-binding recommendation, reviewed and discussed and voted on by the Board of Finance, and commented upon by numerous community members who are taxpayers. This process has been ongoing since late last fall,” Stamatis said.
“In short, before Monday night this budget was reviewed, discussed and communicated by subject matter experts, elected officials on all three boards, taxpayers in Ridgefield, and local media. Even if legally allowed through a loophole in the Charter, I wonder if the broader group of Ridgefield taxpayers would have been comfortable with a last minute decrease to the BOE budget that has been vetted over more than four months because a small group of people who happened to be available one Monday night in May turned up to take advantage of a process, rather than merit.”
Tyrrell, though he lost the vote, said he felt the process had functioned well.
“I think our Town Meeting form of government works as planned,” he said. “While I am disappointed my motion to reduce the BOE budget to a 1% increase did not pass, discussion was allowed and everyone acted civilly. It would be great if that civility made its way to Hartford and Washington.”