The Region 16 Board of Education again opted to present their proposed budget at a town meeting rather than an all-day referendum. Why would they do this a second time? Their answer would probably be the same as the first time — to save money. The actual reason is their budget stands a better chance of passing because the town meeting format amounts to a de facto disenfranchisement of many voters. A town meeting vote means hundreds of voters, many with children in tow, must show up for a town meeting at the same time. They then must queue up to have their ID validated, receive their ballot, and then cast it. Those who can’t stand in long lines for a lengthy amount of time, those who work second shift, those with child or elder care issues, and seniors who won’t or can’t drive at night may not vote. Fully aware of this, the board again chose the town meeting format because it benefits them and not the voters.
Regarding the budget itself, the cuts made thus far are in a word, insulting. As with most public budgets, this one was well larded with items marked in advance to be cut should there be any pushback from the public. At the original budget presentation, only two individuals spoke — First Selectman Gerard Smith and Mayor Chatfield. Both informed the board their spending increases were too high, and without further ado, there were budget cuts made within seconds. At the next budget hearing following the failure of the budget to pass, one woman begged the board to not keep raising her taxes. She lamented, if I recall correctly, her taxes went up $800 last year alone, and $4,000 over the last five years. I also addressed the board. I reminded the board that of all the revenue collected by Region 16 from Beacon Falls, Prospect and the State of Connecticut, over 80 percent goes to pay the salary and benefits of teachers and staff. I personally asked the board to not cut popular classes or activities for students, and I asked them to not defer maintenance because it causes schools to fall into disrepair before their useful life is realized. I said the place to make cuts was obvious. Then, among their other “tough choices,” the board cut an $85,000 boiler that should not have been in the budget to begin with because it was reportedly being paid for through an energy savings program, and a cut to technology — the last place cuts should be made because this is an area where automation and long distance education can reduce head count.
Finally, there are elections coming up for certain members of the Board of Education in November. I would urge voters from both towns to attend a couple Region 16 meetings over the next several months and get to know your representatives on the board. Find out how they’re balancing the needs of the Region with the taxpayers ability to pay. Unemployment in Connecticut is still around the 8 percent mark, and a May 5 article in the Waterbury Republican reported that while foreclosure activity across the U.S. recently dropped 23 percent, Connecticut’s monthly foreclosure figures hit a three-year high. Don’t let anyone tell you that if you oppose these relentless budget increases that you’re anti-children or anti-education. Nothing could be further from the truth.