Region One: Doomed To Repeat History?

region 1 scenicsUpdate: Below in the comment thread is the full text of Ruth’s piece. Please forgive the line breaks.

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There is a fascinating article (paywall) in this morning’s Republican American by Ruth Epstein on the last time Regional School District Number One endured multiple budget defeats.

At that time, almost 20 years ago, my wife and I were childless and both working out of the region, so we paid little attention to the local school budget, even though two-thirds of our property tax dollars went to it. Now with two kids in the high school, we’re “invested.” Oh, what a difference a couple of decades can make.

Ruth’s research indicates a situation that was, in many ways, remarkably similar to the one we have now. It was 1994. Marvin “Muff” Maskovsky was the superintendent and the late great Jack Mahoney was Housatonic’s principal. Interestingly, following the first budget defeat, several administrators agreed to one-year wage freezes and several positions were also cut: “a language arts coordinator, a part-time math coordinator and several secretarial positions.” After the fourth rejection, the board conducted forums in some of the district’s towns. But voters seemed to indicate that the repeated budget failures weren’t about the money:

Speaking at one meeting was board Chairman Geoffrey Drury of Canaan, who said he was perplexed by the continuous defeats. “The logic of the negative vote seems elusive and the most difficult aspect of how to respond. We’ve been told time and again that it’s not a dollar issue and that other things are eating at voters. But those other things are scattered. Everyone seems to have a different reason for voting it down.”

And there was this:

For the fourth submission, the board presented the third proposal again, bringing an outcry that the board and administration were displaying arrogance and ignoring the wishes of the public. 

This year, of course, the board presented essentially the same proposal for the third and fourth referenda. And we heard the same public outcries about arrogance and unresponsiveness. I will spare Generation Y readers, who were born during the CD era, the cliche about sounding like a broken record.

But there are also important differences between 1994 and now. As Ruth reports, also under consideration were the elimination of either the business manager or the assistant superintendent positions. Nine days before the sixth vote and after much debate, the BOE resolved to eliminate the business manager post but rescinded the vote the next day after a threatened breach-of-contract lawsuit. Maskovsky then gave up his district-funded car lease for a savings of $9,000 and the budget finally passed on the sixth try. Another important difference is that, after a defeat, a new referendum must have been held within two weeks, instead of the current 30 days, so the impasse was resolved much quicker than the current one.

So what are the lessons here? Obviously, boards of education should not appear to be haughty and dismissive of constituent concerns. And in a district such as Region One, administrators should think twice before proposing to eliminate several positions at once, especially those that could be seen as threatening the quality of classroom instruction.

To wit, Matt Harnett, Housatonic’s principal who resigned recently to take a middle-school principalship in Bristol, was responsible for proposing the Housy budget. Harnett was new and had little understanding of Region One’s history, so because of declining enrollments he wanted to cut 5.4 teaching positions at the high school. This further poisoned the well and set the stage for the current impasse. Harnett had no idea of the impact of the cuts on public opinion, but Superintendent Patricia Chamberlain should have. She was working in Region One in the 90s. She should have stopped Harnett in his tracks and advised him strongly against proposing so many cuts in one year, citing the past as a guide.

As philosopher George Santayana wisely said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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  • ctdevilsadvocate

    What do the voters
    want?

    After 5
    budget defeats, why is still unclear

    BY RUTH EPSTEIN REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

    FALLS VILLAGE — The current budget plan has been defeated five times and will
    be sent before voters again sometime this month. It’s not the first time the
    district has faced a financial standoff with voters.

    In the 1994-95 budget season, the district faced a similar stalemate. Meetings
    were held, residents voiced their opinions — sometimes with a bit of acrimony —
    and the proposal was altered in attempts to secure its passage. It took six
    votes before a resolution was reached.

    At the time, Marvin “Muff” Maskovsky of Torrington was the
    superintendent and the late Jack Mahoney was principal at Housatonic. Also at
    that time the regulations called for holding referendums every two weeks.

    According to news accounts, the administrators in the central office and the
    high school agreed to a wage freeze for a year following the first defeat. Also
    cut was a language arts coordinator, a part-time math coordinator and several
    secretarial positions. That didn’t appease the voters, who turned back the plan
    for a second and third time.

    FOR THE FOURTH SUBMISSION, the board presented the third proposal again,
    bringing an outcry that the board and administration were displaying arrogance
    and ignoring the wishes of the public. This year, the board again presented the
    same plan for the third and fourth votes.

    After the fourth rejection in 1994, it was decided to hold forums in the
    various towns to gather input from taxpayers.

    Speaking at one meeting was board Chairman Geoffrey Drury of Canaan, who said
    he was perplexed by the continuous defeats. “The logic of the negative
    vote seems elusive and the most difficult aspect of how to respond. We’ve been
    told time and again that it’s not a dollar issue and that other things are
    eating at voters. But those other things are scattered. Everyone seems to have
    a different reason for voting it down.”

    That sentiment seems to be mirrored in this year’s go around, where the impetus
    for the first defeat appeared to be the elimination of 5.4 teaching positions
    at the high school. Principal Matthew Harnett, who left two weeks ago to take a
    position as principal of a middle school in Bristol, said he was proposing the
    staff reductions because of declining student enrollment. Since then 1.4
    positions have been restored.

    Other factors for voter discontent this year revolved around the plan to give
    all students iPad Minis. Several expressed opposition, saying that the teachers
    had not been properly trained before putting the devices in the students’
    hands. The proposal was scrapped after the last vote.

    Another issue during the current process was the proposal to give the network
    administrator and the network coordinator large raises to go along with the
    reconfiguration of their jobs. Instead of just being at the high school, the
    plan is to have them work throughout the district to help the other schools
    with Power School, the newly instituted web-based student information system.
    That move appears unclear now that network administrator Gina Jasmine will be
    leaving this week to take a position with the Danbury school system.

    CURRENTLY MUCH of the talk has been focused on the contracts for Superintendent
    Patricia Chamberlain and Assistant Superintendent Diane Goncalves. They, along
    with Business Manager Samuel Herrick, were awarded three-year contracts with 2
    percent annual raises. After the fourth defeat, Chamberlain agreed to remove
    the last year of her contract and donate this year’s raise to a student
    endowment fund if the fifth vote passed.

    Chairman Jonathan Moore said at a meeting that Goncalves’ contract could not be
    discussed because she is involved in a lawsuit. She is suing board member Gale
    C. Toensing of Falls Village, claiming her actions have brought Goncalves
    emotional distress. Chamberlain is also facing a lawsuit, one brought against
    her by her executive secretary Lucille Paige, who is charging, among other
    things, denial of freedom of speech and retaliation for speaking to an independent
    consultant about the district. Paige is on paid administrative leave until
    October.

    In 1994 the talk centered on eliminating the position of either the business
    manager or assistant superintendent. Much debate ensued and nine days before
    the sixth vote, the board agreed to eliminate the business manager’s position
    held by Gerard Perusse, who was earning $60,000. The next day the vote was
    rescinded when there was a threat of a lawsuit for breach of contract.
    Maskovsky also agreed to give up the car lease the district had provided for
    him, saving $9,000.

    The district finally saw victory at its sixth vote that year, by a tally of
    1,085 to 814, with four of the six towns voting in favor and Canaan and Falls
    Village voting against.

    Contact Ruth Epstein at kcsruthe@aol.com.