This op-ed original appeared in the Fairfield Minuteman on May 6th, 2014
This has been my fifth year participating in Fairfield’s budget process as a department head, and while the personalities of the town boards have changed, a disturbing pattern has become clear.
Every year, the education budget is presented with the smallest increases needed to meet rising costs from Federal and state mandates, a growing student population, and pressure from inflation. And every year, this budget is cut to less than what we need to keep services intact—but not by enough to stop a growing property tax rate.
School programs get cut, taxes go up, and citizens who try in good faith to improve the quality of life in Fairfield walk away demoralized. And the greatest cost is to the ties that bind our community together: our inter-generational compact, that those who work are responsible for the well-being of the young and the elderly alike, is getting more frayed with each passing year.
If we want change, we must recognize the valid concerns of advocates on both sides of the debate and look beyond the local arena to solve the larger, systemic problem.
Taxpayers, our schools are the most valuable of our local services, and the most critical factor in preserving home values. We cannot cut our way to prosperity: if the schools decline, we all lose.
Parents, many retirees pay a third or more of their income to stay in their homes, which truly is unfair and unsustainable. This is because property taxes are regressive: the less money you make, the greater the share of your earnings you pay.
Fortunately, our state government can make the changes we need to fund our schools in a more responsible way. We only need the political will to do so. I’ve been talking with Fairfield residents about my own plans to bring this kind of leadership to Hartford, and have been discussing several of the promising initiatives that could advance next year.
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey has proposed reimbursing towns for all special education costs, which would both lower property taxes dramatically (special education makes up about 25% of the school budget in most districts) and address a long-running problem of planning for unpredictable enrollment, leading to needless scapegoating.
Beyond that, the state funds education in both urban districts and charter schools at a much higher level than we receive in Fairfield, while more equitable funding would benefit all towns. We should move towards a system in which the cost of providing and administering the constitutionally-mandated “adequate education” is wholly funded by the state, while allowing us to control curriculum, class size, hiring, and electives to create the system that meets our needs and our means locally.
We should also consider allowing towns to keep a share of sales taxes and more of the fees that they collect, and to negotiate with universities to begin sharing the cost of local government in their communities.
Reforming the broken property tax system is the most important work our representatives in Hartford can do to help our town. When you look back on this year’s budget process, don’t become cynical about the future: demand serious answers from candidates about what they will do to end the destructive stalemate that pits our seniors against our students every spring.