New Canaan residents come out in support of school budget
Published 5:25 pm, Thursday, April 4, 2013
Nine residents stepped up to the wooden lectern placed before the 12 members of the Town Council, nearly all of whom spoke in the strongest of language against reducing the Board of Education's requested budget any more.
Many of those who spoke were parents with children in the New Canaan schools, and many talked about how integral the quality of the schools are as a reason to move to and live here.
"I am a parent of two children in schools," Marilyn Haresink said. "I am a schoolteacher myself in another district. What I want to tell you is I've seen budget cuts over the years. Class sizes goes from 18 to 20 to 22. There is definitely an impact on these little boys and girls. That 15 or 30 minutes I might be on recess duty, I could be one-on-one with a student or calling a parent. Please keep it in your minds that we deserve better for New Canaan."
Haresink received a spattering of applause from the roughly 40 people assembled at the New Canaan Nature Center.
"I implore you tonight not to make further cuts into the budget," resident Diane Hobbs read from prepared notes. "The Board of Finance has made enormous cuts to the school budget this year, totaling $2.5 million. While there are many on the Board of Finance that I respect, it shows a devaluation of the importance of our schools."
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The Board of Finance's "cuts" took considerable heat at the meeting. The board reduced the 2013-14 education budget requests by about $2.5 million -- $999,000 from capital items, $1,000,000 from health insurance spending and $500,000 in the operating budget -- the school district's operating budget, excluding health insurance, is $3.5 million higher than 2012-13, an increase of 5.4 percent.
Much of the cost increases have to do not with better programs or equipment, but with teacher contracts and other fixed costs, said Board of Education member Hazel Hobbs.
"You've seen first-hand how cost increases are related to contract increases, security measures and increasing enrollment," she said. "The Board of Finance had largest reductions in my memory. With these reductions, I don't know how we will keep the high quality of education. We will do our best, but please don't shackle us with any more cuts."
New Canaan's resident gadfly, Michael Nowacki, was the lone speaker critical of the Board of Education and school district. Listed on the sign-up sheet to speak at the meeting under the pseudonym "Patrick Henry," he delivered a poetic critique of alleged Board of Education malfeasance.
"Fact: Sir Walter Scott quilled in 1808, in his epic poem "Marmion," in Canto VI, the following words of foreshadowing for tonight's meeting: `Oh what a tangled web we weave / when first we practie to deceive," Nowacki began, setting the table for a string of allegations against the BOE.
"Fact: C.G.S. 10-222 requires school districts to annually supply costs for operations of the municipal authority and this statute requires that account transfers may occur between budgeted items only. The NCPS/BOE regularly ignores their fiduciary responsibilities in their oath of office to uphold the laws of the State of Connecticut in their operations."
In the Town Council's discussion that followed, the main issue was whether or not to cut approximately $226,000 from the budget, which is the amount of the BOE's line item for campus security monitors for the upcoming year.
Councilman Roger Williams proposed cutting the budget by that amount and considering restoring it in a special appropriation later in the year, once the BOE has had time to evaluate the efficacy of the monitors. He noted that under the gun bill that was passed into law on April 4, the state would be creating its own school security guidelines and making some grant money available to pay for upgrades.
"It strikes me that if Hartford is acting on this, it might be premature to continue down this path before we know what requirements will be," he said.
The feeling from much of the rest of the council seemed to be that waiting around for the state regulations would not be an acceptable course of action.
"I would think that there is a sentiment in the community that we need to get going, need to be responding in a closer time frame," member Penny Young said. "There's also been confirmation from the Board of Ed that whatever they put in place will be thoroughly evaluated and they will be reporting back to us in October. Even if there are grant funds available (from the state) it takes time for them to be applied for and approved."
Several town council members echoed Young's thoughts.
As the discussion wound down, Tucker Murphy, chairman of the education subcommittee on Town Council spoke up for the first time of the night, delivering a fiery indictment of the tone of this year's budget process.
"I know for a fact that despite the BOE and the administration making huge strides forward in the reporting and the level of analysis that we enjoyed this year, we have a BOE and administration that feels that not only have we not worked with them, but honestly at times felt that we worked against them," Murphy said, speaking further about the schools' high caliber, talented people. But, what do we do to these fine individuals? We beat them down over and over again, to the point that relationships that were long in the making were possibly destroyed forever; trust and respect may be a thing of the past and personal attacks were cast. At the end of the day we end up with a group of employees and volunteers that are physically and emotionally exhausted."
Williams, the Town Council's critical questioner, pushed back against Murphy immediately, saying that the questions and answers asked and received this year were as they should be between the various town bodies.
"What's that old saying? `Sausage and politics, you don't want to see either of them being made,'" he retorted. "That requires rolling up your sleeves and digging into the thing, and going back and forth, and I think it's been a healthy process."
After the meeting, Williams had spoke about Murphy, a former member of the BOE, calling her a "Manchurian candidate" for the schools, referencing the1962 film in which a political candidate is substituted for one who is brainwashed by communists.
The Town Council will finalize the budget on Tuesday, April 9.
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