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Hundreds of residents crowded into Council chambers at Town Hall Monday night to let the Town Council know that education funding should not be cut any further.
It was standing room only, and even that was hard to come by, as rows of two or three people deep lined the walls in chambers. A television was set up in a Town Hall lounge to accommodate the people who couldn't fit into the room, but even its capacity was maxed out and spilled into the halls. The meeting, which went on for more than four hours, was a chance for the public to let their voices be heard on the proposed $95.9 million operating budget. A majority of residents came out to support the education budget, which, as presented, stands at $60.7 million. Republican Councilor and Budget Committee Chairman David Schrumm has suggested that an additional $365,000 could be cut from education funding. Democrat Michael Ecke, a member of the Budget Committee, crafted an alternate proposal which increase education funding by $500,000.
"We can't give up on investing. We need to invest in our kids, which is an investment in our community," said Sharon Steers. "Let's think about what's best for Cheshire."
The proposal passed on to Town Manager Michael Milone by the Board of Education was roughly $950,000 less than what Superintendent of Schools Dr. Greg Florio had requested. The cuts made by the Board of Education were never outlined, but some may have been based on an assumption of concessions from the teacher's union. With such concessions not reported to be forthcoming, many groups feared that their programs would be the ones cut.
Members of the drama club, band and other groups spoke on behalf of their organizations, pleading with the Council not to cut their funding.
Council Chairman Tim Slocum had to explain that, while the Council will make a determination on how much money the Board of Education receives, the governing body would not dictate where the funds should be used. It was up to the Board of Education, Slocum said, to make the budget work and cuts to programs or layoffs would be directed by the Board. After hearing complaints that cutting the $60 million budget would jeopardize the school system, Slocum said he would not accept that.
"I will not accept the notion that the budget cut by $1 million or $1.2 million, that the department will come off the rails," Slocum said. "The Town will still have an admirable school district."
Resident Jim Murnane said his two children were in college and he was now an empty-nester. He said if anyone should be arguing for a decrease in education spending, it should be him, but he said he was willing to pay the extra taxes to "pay for the kids in Cheshire." He said he was afraid that the Town was getting close to "the tipping point" and argued that, while the district wouldn't fall off the rails, it would be in worse shape.
"I challenge you to smoke a pack a cigarettes a day for a full year," Murnane said. "The wheels might not fall off, but you'll be in worse shape."
As part of Milone's proposal, the average homeowner, with two cars, would see their taxes increase by roughly $155. Some members of the public calculated that, if funding were restored back to what Dr. Florio has originally requested, roughly $1 million more, taxes would go up an additional $96, so the tax increase would be approximately $250 on average.
"I think you should consider tonight a referendum. People are opposed to the (proposed) budget and support Florio's budget," said Randy Yale. "I will say it very clearly: raise my taxes."
Not everyone was so enthusiastic about increased education spending, like Marion Nero, who explained that, in the last six years, the education budget has increased 23 percent, roughly $11 million, while enrollment has decreased by roughly 300 students. "What business increases by 23 percent while seeing fewer clients?" Nero questioned.
Considering inflation, David Meraugliano believed that the Cheshire school district was "terribly underfunded." He said he'd like to see his tax dollars spent on education. Laurie Sansone, quoting data she obtained from the state Office of Policy and Management, said other school districts in the area, over a three year period, increased between 15 and 30 percent. We are underspending compared to a lot of other towns," she said.
Other residents had proposed using more of the Town's surplus, sometimes referred to as the rainy day fund, to help offset costs. Schrumm has cautioned against using too many reserves because that automatically leaves a shortfall in the following year's budget.
"A shortfall in the budget in not a rainy day," Schrumm said. "A rainy day is for the storm that wipes out bridges and roads and results in millions in repairs. If we use $500,000 in reserves this year, next year's budget will be $500,000 short."
The Town Council meets again on Tuesday, April 13, at 7:30 p.m. to adopt the budget.