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Council Committees Vow To Circulate Latest, Most Accurate Data



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Council Committees Vow To Circulate Latest,

Most Accurate Data

By John Voket

It may call for hiring a communications professional or leaning on various town departments, including the school district, to expedite information delivery, but two council committees this week discussed the importance of helping Newtown residents better understand next year’s budget and the long-term planning of their local government.

On November 29, the Education Committee of the Legislative Council met for the first time since June and immediately set about defining some of the most significant budgetary issues they expect to address. The group also committed to presenting uniform budget information to fellow council members and the public, provided they can access necessary details from the school district or the Board of Education.

Two days later, the council’s Administrative Committee agreed it needed to step up promotion of the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), initiating discussion about whether a municipal communications director could best serve in helping the public understand the long-term planning document.

During the Education Committee meeting, Councilman Kevin Fitzgerald said he reserved the right to disagree philosophically on how the council might act on that information, or on how he or others might personally interpret school budget details. He fully agreed, however, that the public would be depending on their committee for solid data as the panel readies recommendations to the full council on next year’s school budget request.

“People will look to us, so we have to be careful about what we say,” Mr Fitzgerald stated during discussion. “We have to make sure we understand the difference between the numbers we bought into and the numbers we have not bought into.”

Mr Fitzgerald went on to say that the committee should strive to provide information that is as accurate as it can be, so taxpayers “don’t run off making assumptions.”

Education Committee member Benjamin Spragg said that last year there was a lot of misinformation circulating among the public, creating a sense of what the committee agrees was unnecessary angst among taxpayers who had little enough time to try and get a grasp on intricate particulars of the district’s $67 million spending proposal.

Mr Spragg said he was even somewhat frustrated as the council’s Finance Committee chair, when he appealed to the Education Committee for specific budget details and could not access them for his committee.

“I don’t understand most of the issues in the school budget,” Mr Spragg said. “But I was told the {education} committee was not getting answers from the school board.”

Mr Spragg suggested the Education Committee continue pressing the school board and district for better details earlier on, “while we’re calm.”

Better Analysis Required

Mr Fitzgerald also called for better budget analysis so the Education Committee could present a uniform opinion on particular aspect of the school district’s spending plans.

Education Committee Chair Kathryn Fetchick, who was vice chair of the school board during last year’s budget process, said even that board was left waiting for expedited data.

“The Board of Education tried to get more information early, but it wasn’t very successful,” she said.

Turning the focus to the looming 2010-11 budget process, she suggested requesting specifics on issues like hiring more teachers, full-time kindergarten, Reed School scheduling, and how changes in enrollment might change fundamental assumptions of the district’s budget request.

Ms Fetchick also suggested, and the group agreed, to request the school superintendent and school board chair to sit with them to explain particulars first-hand. She said the Education Committee should not expect to learn what things will cost until Superintendent Janet Robinson “gets her arms around” the district’s proposed spending plan.

Mr Fitzgerald said the committee should take on the most controversial issues quickly, and determine what those issues are in concert with the top school officials.

“So there won’t be a big firestorm at the end,” Ms Fetchick concurred, adding that the committee should require the maximum amount of backup data available related to those subjects to aid in disseminating accurate information.

In the end, Ms Fetchick said there are going to be hard choices to make regarding school budget recommendations, but they hope to better understand those choices by understanding the district’s priority list.

Mr Fitzgerald said when the committee is not clear on details, they need to depend on school officials for clarification. And if philosophical differences arise in interpreting those details, the committee should still attempt to deliver uniform recommendations.

“If we don’t agree, we can still put out better information to the public — if they are listening,” he said.

Making POCD Meaningful

In the case of the POCD, Administrative Committee Chair Gary Davis said the challenge was to either find a way, or someone who could help, to make the potential inherent in that planning document more meaningful to the public.

A discussion ensued on the possibility of hiring a communications professional, an idea that First Selectman Pat Llodra had entertained in the 2009 budget, but dropped because of spending concerns.

Mrs Llodra has since discussed and received some concurrence from the school district that a shared communications director budgeted between the two departments might be the way to go. If such a professional was hired, Mr Davis said one of that individual’s tasks might be finding ways to engage the public in long-term planning ideas utilizing the POCD.

“I see a value with having someone in here to promote the plan,” Mr Davis said.

Administration Committee member George Ferguson said the group should endeavor to determine the needs of the various town constituencies by identifying and communicating with individuals who are the voices of those constituencies.

Council member Mary Ann Jacob agreed, saying while the council already has many outlets for disseminating information, she knows many of her constituents “don’t have the level of understanding about the details of how town government operates.”

“It’s about giving people enough information so they will get involved,” Ms Jacob concluded.

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