Of the three “R’s” of budget politics, once again the reading and ‘riting about the subject comes to a close, and all that it left to consider is the ‘rithmetic at the polls, when the third iteration of a 2013-2014 school budget comes up for a vote. Perhaps the most compelling number now up for consideration is not the $71 million bottom line, or the 3.93 percent increase over current spending levels, or the 33.32 mill tax rate; it is the two-thirds of Newtown’s electorate who do not vote in budget referendums and who effectively have no say on the matter of school spending or taxation.
On May 14, the roughly one-half of the one-third of eligible voters who embraced their democratic franchise decided a 4.37 percent increase in school spending was too much, even though it had come after years of annual increases averaging less than one percent. Consequently the Legislative Council pared another $300,000 from the school spending plan, trying to incrementally plumb the depths of how low the disaffected, but active, 17 percent of Newtown voters wanted to go before they would support a school budget. The council budgetmakers hope this time they have hit the mark.
The net result of this kind of perennial dialing back of school spending proposals is a diversion of funds from needed infrastructure to protect the curricula and staffing in classrooms, borrowing against deferred building maintenance and technology investments. This strategy takes its toll if it continues for years without mitigation. Acting Superintendent of Schools John Reed told The Bee last week that reductions in building maintenance budgets in recent years left these accounts underfunded by $400,000 at the start of the current fiscal. Getting out of that hole and adequately funding maintenance accounted for about 20 percent of this year’s proposed increase. The concern at this point is that yet another school budget rejection will put needed infrastructure investments back in the hole for yet another year, compounding next year’s budget problems.
Because the Board of Education never apportions cuts from its original budget proposals until after the final version of the budget is passed, there could be other casualties of the budget battles of 2013. One of these, according to the superintendent, could be the implementation of full-day kindergarten, which the school board has set as a priority at the urging of parents.
The last school budget proposal failed by a margin of 52 on May 14. It’s a fair bet that thousands of parents and grandparents of Newtown schoolchildren didn’t vote that day. It’s also a fair bet that most of those parents and grandparents don’t want their kids attending schools that are slowly falling into disrepair with technology slowly falling into obsolescence. By adding 10 or 15 minutes into the equation — the time it takes to vote — for 10 or 15 percent of those who stayed home last time, the result may add up to something quite different when Newtown goes to the polls on June 4. We may be able to move eventually from lowered expectations to raised hopes for the Newtown School District, but only if more voters add a fourth “R” to the equation — for responsibility.