“This year’s budget is the perfect storm,” said Thomas Flynn, a 12-year member of the Fairfield Board of Finance at the public hearing on the possible cuts to the education budget for the coming 2017-2018 school year. On Saturday morning, the town had its annual event where members of Fairfield and its community could speak for two minutes in front of the Board of Finance and propose their thoughts on how money will be budgeted. With a possible 14 million reduction in funding from the state to the town, many parents, teachers, and other townspeople were concerned, filling the Fairfield Ludlowe High School auditorium to maximum capacity with standing room only. “We have to find the money somewhere,” said Flynn, “And it’s important to keep in mind that the Board of Finance is not responsible for the cuts made, just the money given to the Board of Education.”
The cuts that are being referred to were presented by Dr. Toni Jones, the new superintendent, who split them into tier one, tier two, and tier three level cuts from least to most extreme. These changes would affect students at all levels of education in the system, tier one includes cutting money from homebound instruction, eliminating a bus, cutting two physical education positions at the high school, reducing program supplies, not redoing the tennis courts at both high schools, not redoing the carpeting at Fairfield Woods Middle School, not redoing the music suite flooring at Fairfield Woods Middle School, cutting money from overall maintenance and maintenance technical consults, reducing the budget for paving and curbs, not redoing the playgrounds for ECC or Stratfield Elementary School, and a project at Mill Hill Elementary. The tier two cuts includes some possible revenue estimates by charging students for activities and increasing a building rental fee, while still cutting money from the 3-5th grade World Language department, 4th grade orchestra program, not having summer curriculum work, cutting money from district professional development, reducing the supply budget, removing money from the district improvement plan implementations, cutting money from the aquatics program, and freezing secondary CO administration. The tier three cuts that have been discussed are most extreme and are against staff recommendations, which includes a furlough day for all staff, closing one elementary school, consolidating to one high school, restructuring the house system, relocating the Walter Fitzgerald campus, not having 9th grade sports, making kindergarten a half day, eliminating curriculum leaders, reducing days for deans, and reducing days for counselors. While not all of these cuts may end up happening, the fact that they are being considered has raised concerns townwide as to what this could mean for the future of the public school system.
Within the Warde community, this could have serious implications depending on what gets cut or what types of revenue the district looks to bring in. “We’re not sure yet what cuts will need to be made, since the superintendent has only proposed what could be cut, many of which will have an impact on some of our programs here and possibly some of our staff here,” says Mr. Ebling, Warde Headmaster, “There are a lot of different ideas, but nothing definite.” On the opposite spectrum, Hannah Choi, who attended the meeting, has a son who attends the preschool at Warde through its lottery system and helped her son go to school when her young family moved to Fairfield and encountered unexpected costs. “If it had not been for this program, he would not have been able to go to preschool, and I want to make sure that other parents can give their children this opportunity,” she voiced.
These opportunities include the full education experience that people like Aimee Guerrero is trying to protect, as she wrote to the town boards and their members to preserve the well-rounded education that students like TJ Calabrese, a third grader at North Stratfield School who will come to Warde, is looking to have. “I’m excited to play an instrument next year… maybe the bass,” he smiled at the meeting. This program is one facing some possible serious financial reduction and would be a loss to the outstanding music program that Fairfield now provides.
When asked about his opinions on the public hearing, Mr. O’Brien, a Warde teacher with children in the Fairfield Public Schools, said that, “It’s important that town leadership be aware of the long view. Right now we have financial problems we need to solve, but we need to think of the implications that they will have down the road. If the cuts being considered are implemented, they could have tremendous effects on class sizes, courses offered, and extracurricular opportunities for students across all educational levels.”
While programs for students have been a primary concern for parents, there are also several other issues that have been brought up with these budget cuts. One has been security, as Lieutenant James Perez of the Fairfield Police expressed that “Any budget cut of any size can greatly impact safety at schools, or in a town overall.” For many senior citizens, the possible tax hike that could come with these budget cuts is scary, as many are retired and do not have income to support higher taxes. Another large issue is real estate, as with declining tax base and home values, young couples may no longer choose to move to Fairfield over other towns in the area. One parent expressed this by commenting at the hearing that “with these cuts, you would have a better chance of selling an ‘I Heart Dan Malloy’ t-shirt than getting a young family to move to Fairfield if headlines read ‘Town Closes School from Budget Cuts.’”
Overall, this meeting was emotionally charged for all that were there, but Flynn expressed hope in the democratic process as long as the people of the town can maintain decorum and respect. “This is a direct hit on our town,” he stated after expressing how Fairfield provides a sizable amount of money to the state and receives very little in return, “But you are the customers. You are the eyes and ears. If we work together, we can better our community.” Just as one concerned parent put it: “we are a strong town, strong community, and have a strong public school system.” For more information on the budget, information is available on the Fairfield Public Schools website and the public can be viewed on FairTV, the public access network with a television channel and website. Citizens are encouraged to write to the various members of the Board of Finance and Board of Education with their concerns, as this is not a one term or one year problem, but something that will have to be dealt with for years to come.