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The Cheshire School System has reached a “tipping point” and students currently attending classes will not receive the type of quality education their predecessors did, according to one member of the Board of Education.
The dire comments about the future of the educational system in town were made during the Board's latest business meeting May 20, where members officially approved a $60.37 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The total, which was allocated last month by the Cheshire Town Council, is $1.37 million less than what Superintendent of Schools Dr. Greg Florio had requested during his budget presentation back in January, and more than $350,000 less than the Board had requested after making its own cuts to Florio's budget in February.
At the meeting, held on May 20, Board member and Finance Committee Chairman Peter Massey apologized to the students in Cheshire, stating that “we have probably let you down.”
Massey gave an impassioned speech during which he scolded members of the Board, Town Council, and the community as a whole for not, as he put it, “embracing education.”
“Shame on those Town Council members who brought their personal bias into the debate,” stated Massey, who called it “interesting” that the total amount reduced from Florio's original budget nearly equaled the wage increases expected for teachers within the district.
“We have reached a tipping point,” said Massey. “The once academically mighty Cheshire School System is gone.”
Massey also mentioned correspondence the Board had received from members of the public, and pleas he had heard for certain programs to be saved or more money to be allocated in certain areas. “The question I have is, were these people at the polls last November? Were they at the Town Council meetings? Were they at the Board meetings?”
Stating that “this is not over” and that the Board would be back in the same spot next year, Massey called the budget vote “one of the saddest in my tenure on the Board.”
Not much in the way of specific cuts were discussed at the meeting as the budget that was approved on Thursday, by a 5-2 margin, was nearly identical to the one Florio had suggested in April. In that budget, Florio recommended that the Board cut $10,000 from the Cheshire High School Marching Ram Band travel budget, cut $255,000 from the district's supply account, increase the “pay-for-play” amount paid by parents for activities from $75 to $100, and the elimination of approximately 17 teaching positions.
However, three areas that had been targeted for elimination in Florio's proposal in April were saved.
The academically gifted program was retained, as were two teaching positions at the high school – a technology teacher position and a business education position – all of which were originally to be cut.
To save the programs, Florio will use stimulus money the Town received. However, the superintendent warned that the action was a “one time only” measure that would save the positions and programs for the coming year, but would not guarantee their survival past when the stimulus money is expected to end.
“Unless something changes dramatically, I would probably have to recommend cutting these positions next year during my budget proposal,” explained Florio.
Board member Stephen Mrowka who, along with Massey, voted against the budget, voiced his concern about the cuts being made to school supplies. “A carpenter cannot build without supplies,” said Mrowka, adding that it was the same for teachers and their materials.
Fellow member Alan Sobol echoed the same concern, and even made a motion to restore approximately $127,000 to the supply account, suggesting that Florio “could find that money.” Sobol stated that the superintendent could perhaps look into joining with other towns to pool resources in certain areas, or could look to utilize lecture halls more often in order to make up the difference.
However, Florio insisted that, if the Board were to approve Sobol's motion, he would be forced to recommend that the academically gifted program and two teaching positions that had been rescued with stimulus money ultimately be cut.
“There is not, in this budget, room for such an amendment to be accommodated,” said Florio.
Sobol later changed the wording of his motion to indicate that Florio should be directed to move any unforeseen savings to the supplies account, but the motion was ultimately defeated as fellow Board members suggested such an action could tie Florio's hands down the road to make necessary additions to other areas.
In discussing the overall budget, Sobol stated initially that he was “unsure” if he would support the proposal, which he ultimately did.
“The school system my daughter went through will not be the system students go through now,” said Sobol. “We, as a community, need to repair that.”
Focusing much of his attention on the teachers salary account, Sobol stated that the bulk of the reductions had to come from position eliminations.
He also called yet again for the teachers union to consider offering concessions, suggesting that had a proposal originally offered by Florio, for the teachers union to accept a reduction in the average wage increase of 4.4 percent to 2.2 percent over the next few years, could have saved nearly 12 teaching positions.
“It hasn't happened yet but, if it happened before our budget goes into law, it could save those positions,” said Sobol.
Board Chairman Gerry Brittingham reiterated the point, stating that there were still “six more weeks” before the budget is finalized. “There is still time,” he said.
Brittingham said that he has been “exceptionally disappointed” in many areas of the budget, including the inability of the union and the Town to negotiate concessions.
“When you see other communities getting help from their unions, it is very disappointing to me that it couldn't be done here,” said Brittingham.