Residents call for increased school funding

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Tolland - posted Wed., Mar. 30, 2011
Town Manager Steven Werbner defends his proposed 2.45-percent budget increase at the March 29 town meeting. Photos by Steve Smith.
Town Manager Steven Werbner defends his proposed 2.45-percent budget increase at the March 29 town meeting. Photos by Steve Smith.

At the town meeting on March 29, Tolland Town Manager Steven Werbner presented his budget of $50.5 million – a 2.45-percent increase over the current year. Werbner cut the Board of Education’s budget request by $1.38 million, citing a drop in revenue from the state and federal government, and increasing costs of healthcare and fuel.

Boiling down his explanation of how he derived the numbers, Werbner said, “With less revenue than the prior year, and limited grand list growth, there is little room for growth in the budget unless property taxes are increased.”

Werbner explained that if the school employees would opt for a health savings account (HSA), or high-deductible healthcare insurance plan, an estimated $1.2 million could be saved.

Last year, the Board of Education was forced to make cuts, which largely impacted sports and other extra-curricular activities, after the first budget referendum was defeated, and the council retreated to a zero-increase budget for 2010-2011.

It would seem that most people favored putting monies back into the education budget. In the straw poll taken at the meeting, 57 raised their hands when asked if the budget should be increased. Only four wanted a decrease, and nine were in favor of the budget as proposed.

Similarly, of the 27 residents who spoke at the meeting, 23 were in favor of increasing the budget to the schools.

One resident said he paid $1,100 in fees for his children to pay sports, which was more than three times the proposed tax increases for a home valued similarly to his.

Resident Ken Kittredge criticized Werbner's HSA idea, calling it impractical.

“The bottom line is, there are some problems when we look at that as being the major crux of how we developed the number that we've come to for the Board of Education,” Kittredge said. “Your time frame is unrealistic. I don't believe that it is possible to get all the BOE employees to elect that option in that time frame.”

Kittredge added that the HSA plan could work if phased in incrementally over a longer period of time.

Patricia Boyle said last year's referendum was not indicative of the residents' wishes.

“We only lost by a very small margin,” she said, “and I firmly believe that the loss did not represent the wishes of the majority of citizens in Tolland – just those that voted.”

Boyle added that she objected to the “pay to play” for sports, because it moves toward an “unhealthy model.”

“Rich kids get what they need and other kids don't,” she said. “Public education is supposed to be just that – public – which means paid for by all, and available to all. If schools were adequately funded, this inequality of opportunity would be eliminated.”

“I think we have to ask ourselves what we want to be, and what we want our town to become,” said resident Sam Adlerstein. “There's no doubt that the quality of education has suffered in the past. I think there is a lot of 'heroics' going on, that has kept it where it is – heroics in the schools, among the staff and in the teachers. I just don't think we can continue to depend on those heroics in the future.”

Resident Sue Bezzina, who is also the only art teacher at the 700-student Tolland Intermediate School, said the schools have deteriorated during her 14-year tenure.

“We have lost many teachers, paras, and custodians due to lack of funds,” she said. “Last year we were hurt especially hard.”

Bezzina added that many supplies, which the schools once paid for, now come out of teachers’ pockets.

“We must think about our priorities,” she said. “Going out to eat, entertainment, sports and vacations are not needs. If you had to choose between feeding your children or buying them toys, you would choose food. Similarly, we need to feed our children's minds.”

Sam Belsito wanted the budget untouched, adding that the school's don't need more money, but do need to be fixed. “If you look at the school system, yes, we have made changes,” Belsito said. “The problem is, the school system is inefficient in the delivery of education cost.”

Belsito cited the example of magnet and charter schools, which cost less, but produce higher achievement.

“These schools use different approaches to teaching,” Belsito said, adding that longer school days, weeks, and years have netted a stronger culture of education. “They infuse new techniques that infuse in students just how good going to school and learning can be,” he said.

Mike Pascuzzi wanted Werbner's budget, as is.

“We’re going to have another tough year,” he said. “Steve is the only person in this room who knows what’s best. He’s our professional, and I count on him to make decisions.”

Resident Steve Browning, also a teacher in Colchester, said many towns have passed small- or no-increase budgets, but then find themselves passing larger increases in later years to make up the difference.

“In three years, [Colchester] has gone up 8 percent,” Browning said. “When I look at why your school board asked for 6 percent, what happened was, because they weren't going for 3 percent consistently, their bills got ahead of them and they started making 'outlandish' requests at 6 percent. If we just go at 3 percent consistently, I don't think you would have that many problems.”

The Town Council is expected to finalize the budget on April 5, and the annual budget presentation meeting is set for April 26. The budget referendum is set for May 3. If defeated, subsequent referenda will take place every two weeks until a budget is passed.

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