What is the Biggest Threat to Fairfields Character and how should it be Dealt with

What is the biggest threat to Fairfield’s character and how should it be dealt with? It had been evident for some years that in-migration far exceeded out-migration. Fairfield had been growing by leaps and bounds, as they say, after a period of declining enrollments, which spurred retrenchment and school consolidation. The surest sign of this phenomenon is the inability of the public schools to keep up with growth. The population tables are somewhat reliable. Consequently, the planning that relies upon some predictable knowledge often needs adjustments.

The Board of Education and the Town have been playing a catch up game in hope of getting ahead of the curve in order to stay ahead of the curve as far as its ability to predict that every youngster entering a school from another as well as every youngster with a family living in town will have a seat when school opens in the fall. The Board of Education has been adjusting with that wobbly note of uncertainty for some years and has had to use contingency plans to house all enrolled students. But the predictors are that population variations are beginning to stall and those look to be in decline for the coming years. This will be a slow adjustment, depending largely on the economy, and there will be enough seats for everyone in all schools.

If the Board of Education through its agents at the Board’s central office cannot reputably manage with the information they have, they will only be blamed for more disruption as they scramble to solve problems just as new ones develop and thus remain behind the curve. Nobody wants to deal with redistricting, least of all parents whose ire is badly inflamed at the mere rumor of a redistricting discussions being held in ad hoc committees or at the highest levels of the administration.

One of the problems over the years is that the Board of Education itself has been at the heart of problems in town, probably through no fault of its own. Once upon a time, the business of overseeing and administering the school was a very public debate. Residents, those with children who were interested in quality education or in any issue related to their children knew the issues up front and took care to follow what went on in the school and at the Board.

Meetings were very public and not solely the domain of those whose jobs or special interest require attendance and often important voices in the outcome of school business, like parents and citizen watchdogs, are missing from the debate. A situation like the one described leads us to conclude that the only parties aware of school board agendas and issues are key members of the superintendent’s entourage and members of the Board who have time to read the agenda and supporting documents.

With the decline of journalism’s ability to stay on top of Board and education news, sports are always more newsworthy than other school activities with the possible exception of those activities reported about elementary school holiday events. In a town like Fairfield, the education beat was the most important, daily job of all. At no time in the past forty years has a superintendent of schools stayed under the radar as much as this one has or perhaps it is what superintendents have learned to do when the newspaper of record drops education from its close, weekly reporting and scrutiny. None of this is good for the schools.

The schools are important to the character of Fairfield because the school budget is its largest annual appropriation There was a near taxpayer revolt this year, 2009, and there is likely to be an even more aggressive revolt taking place next year. With the economy being in the doldrums and taxpayers being all but taxed out, the schools will continue to ask for an ever-increasing share of available revenue.

While real estate in town appears to be healthy, with peaks behind us and activity all around, who knows what kind of a masking of reality is actually taking place? Will in-migration suddenly surge for some inexplicable reason to exceed out-migration? Will education policy continue to evolve like a melodrama behind closed curtains? Will the First Selectman have to close the cash room doors? We may live on the edges of the Gold Coast, but the gold mine is not at Town Hall. The school money spigot is wide open now and will probably need more funds even as the school population adjusts and declines as it seems to be doing now.

Most school budget dollars are for salaries. In a crunch it is teachers and others ranking below them who suffer, hardly ever administrators. This phenomena has been consistent almost everywhere. Unions, including teacher’s unions are under pressure to curb their demands and put in salary caps below those currently negotiated on salary schedules. This does not bode well. The quality of Fairfield’s schools is closely tied to the quality of the student population and their families as it is to the quality of programs. The success of Fairfield is in part due to the values of the community.

There are other issues to be dealt with, not the least of which are the 3rd railroad station, the need to preserve all the land we have and care for what exists for public use, the outcome of an ongoing revaluation, not to mention the cost of ordinary upkeep of town properties. All departments have had to be cautious, have had to retrench. In order to remain the town’s most valuable assets, what will its schools do? What will the Unions want and what will the Superintendent recommend? Superintendent Clark has an outstanding reputation as recognized by her peers, but she is the most the least visible that Fairfield has had in the last forty years.

If a small group of people who care for deer can gather that much publicity for their cause and contentious publicity for the town, it will be a blip in the night sky compared to the troubles that will brew over the schools unless more at the Board start working toward transparency in all things.