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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 Nine days before the sixth vote and after much debate, the BOE resolved to eliminate the business manager post but rescinded the vote the next day after a threatened breach-of-contract lawsuit.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.”