IMHO: Editorial (In my Humble Opinion) Making Sense of it all

By Susan Winters

If you are registered as a Democrat or a Republican PLEASE go out to VOTE in Tuesday’s primary. Every vote counts. If you need a ride to the polls, please post on Facebook in the Redding Democrat or Redding Republican pages and I am sure someone will be able to pick you up.

There is a lot at stake in tomorrow’s primary and the more I have poked into it, the more I see that most people are as confused as I was about the issues. On the surface, it looks simple. We all want great schools and some of the candidates are running on that platform. But, guess what! We ALL want great schools! The seniors and the empty nesters want great schools. All of the candidates in both races, in all of the parties want great schools. And, also guess what! They all admit that our schools ARE great. Yes, we have work to do to keep them that way and there is work to do to make them even better. No one is denying that.

But, budget cuts have not changed the way we run our schools. We have enough paper and paper clips, we have enough teachers. All of the candidates also agree that budget cuts have NOT impacted education. The 11 full time teachers and the support staff mentioned were cut because of DECLINING ENROLLMENT. The class of 2017 were the bubble year and without them there was a tremendous drop. Even before their departure the numbers were dropping rapidly.

For the longest time, I didn’t understand why having a surplus was bad. I thought it showed that the Board of Education and Central Office were fiscally prudent and responsible and look how much they saved! I was also surprised that the Board of Finance was so harsh to the Board of Ed, requesting large cuts.

I only recently discovered some background and facts that shed a light on this issue for me.

The Board of Finance did not expect the budget to be spent to the penny. There is an analogy that I like to use on this: A Jewish mother (or an Italian mother or any other food oriented culture) makes food for a crowd. When they are done, if there is no food left she cries, “I didn’t make enough!” If there is too much left, she screams, “No one likes my cooking!”  There has to be the right surplus of food eaten and some left over to make sense and make her happy.  Same for the budget and surplus.

The average surplus has historically been $70,000 to $90,000. There are always some kinds of negotiations going on, savings on health insurance or things like the bus contract, but why were the last two years different? This was not the first year that we had a warm winter! The surplus of $500,000 two years ago and last year’s$859,000 is astounding!

If I was on the Board of Finance, the financial stewards of the town, I would be alarmed as well.  If our Board of Finance wasn’t alarmed then I would be wondering about them.

Here’s another thing I just found out: if the school were lacking anything they could have used any of the surplus to get it before the end of the fiscal year.They couldn’t stock up on supplies for next year but they could have hired a librarian at JRMS or more math specialists to help raise test scores. But, they didn’t because they felt they didn’t need them.

At the end of the year, it is dictated by state statute that the surplus be returned to the town or put in the health care reserve. From what I understand about the reserve is that we have functioned just fine with the amounts regularly kept in the accounts.  The Board of Finance has promised that they will cover any shortfall but the Board of Education has said they don’t trust them.  Well, if it comes down to it, there will just be no choice. And the town will have to legally cover the balance. Again, as the financial stewards of the town, I would leave that decision to them.

I also understand that the declining enrollment is not a surprise and it has been talked about for many years with the Board of Finance requesting a long-term plan for the schools. This has not been done. Former board of education member Eric Witt chaired a long term planning committee that only had one meeting over 2 years. If this had been done then we wouldn’t be running around with chickens without heads now.  When it became clear that closing a school was not practical, perhaps a wing of each school could have been rented out to another organization, similar to what the old Samuel Staples elementary building does in Easton. But, now it is almost too late because enrollment will drop for the next couple of years, then flatten and then start to slowly rise.

The Board of Finance should have explained this to the Board of Education and to the public in a clearer manner. The Board of Education should have paid more attention to their numbers and not left one person in charge. The Board of Education fought against having the discrepancies and practices of the Central Office investigated by an outside firm and Ed Miller said he found it insulting. It was only after Region 9 agreed to cooperate with the audit that they relented.  I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears the reactions of the Board of Education members when they were asked the location of major funds. They did not know where the funds were being stored because they were not on the reports. They were unaware of multiple transfers of large sums. There should have been backups so that they knew that the information wasn’t being reported to them promptly.

There have been so many new faces on both boards, a new superintendent, a finance director leaving abruptly under a cloud and an interim director. Many of the people involved weren’t given the information and things fell through the cracks. That’s why the controls needed to be sharpened. The Board of Education needs to take ownership of this and stop being offended.

Members of the Board of Finance claim that the previous Superintendent was adversarial and suspicious of the Board of Finance. Luckily, his successor Tom McMorran has made great strides in transparency.

Are you still reading? Good, keep going to the end. This is important.

My child is a very recent graduate of the Redding schools, having gone all through the system from Kindergarten. I am tired of being told I am “out of touch” because so many things have changed since he was in the lower schools. I have more insight than some of the parents whose children are just in the lower grades or are new to the system or just moved to the area and don’t know the history, background and residents whose work paved the way. Their experiences aren’t new. Many of us have been there before.  “My child is too young to go to the 5th grade all the way up in the middle school! Those big kids will pounce on the little kids” Older parents told me not to worry and that they will be ok. And, they were. Just like the kids in RES going on to JRMS will be. And, yes, my son had 22 kids in his class all the way through RES and yes, he was just fine. We all want smaller classes but this is not private school. Who is to say what the optimal number is that makes a smaller class? Twenty-two sure is smaller than the 30 I went to school with back on Long Island, which was the privileged area in its day. And, it’s different now how? Because the kids have 15 minutes of Spanish added a few times a week. I maintain that my child didn’t have all of the technology open to students today and that made his RES years harder.

Every parent must advocate for what is best for his or her own child, correct. But, as I said this is public school. A fantastic, magical public school, but it is only one part of Redding and the Board of Finance is responsible for taking care of the financial health of ALL of Redding.

The Board of Education has been very proactive and reactive when it comes to classes. When more kids enrolled in kindergarten last year instead of increasing class size they creatively added a section AND preserved Gifted and Talented. And, if another section was needed then they could have taken the salary from the surplus. Really! Ask one of the board members, or a board of finance member or a selectman. That’s what I did.

I’ve lived in Redding for 27 years and for the first nine I didn’t have a child. It took another 5 for him to enter the school system. So, I paid school taxes for 14 years before my own child used the system. Now he is in college and I am still paying. Many have criticized the senior tax credit. We had better hope that our empty nesters stay in town to help pay the extra that our taxes don’t pay for the $21,000 cost per student. The average house tax is $12,000 and that is town and school. Many families have 2-3 children or more. Who is picking up the difference? This isn’t a one issue race, folks.

I’m all for change and it is great that a group has banded together to make a positive difference. But, I also think that people need to research for their own. The schools were, are and will continue to be great. The Board of Finance wants to continue to make them great. The Board of Education wants to continue to make them great. The budget has plenty of money in it to insure its greatness. The testing problems at John Read have nothing to do with money. If they did, there is plenty to be used to help. And, the teachers who have health issues will continue to have their bills paid.

Let’s be guided by our Board of Selectmen. Different parties, but they collaborate well. They are polite and respectful to each other and work in a bipartisan manner for ONE REDDING.
This fighting and animosity has to stop. After the election how will people be able to work together?

All of the candidates have good intentions and great ideas but some are running on platforms that are just don’t make sense. For example, a long-term plan for the town is a great idea but it needs to come from the Board of Selectmen and not from the Board of Finance.

One group asks for civility but their members spread alternative facts and post red herrings on social media. Keyboard courage! I’m proud that what I have to say is not just on these pages but also said face to face.

My ex-husband was a CPA and for a few years an adjunct professor at Pace University teaching statistics. So, he knew his stuff in that arena. He often showed me how any number, or any information could be spun to one advantage or another. Don’t be a victim to professional Spinmasters. People use long words or legal terminology to sound like they know what they are talking about. As a marketing professional, I know how convincing something is when it is typeset or printed brightly.

My high school English teacher, Mrs. Morse, used to show us another way things can be twisted or spun. She chose a movie and said the critics proclaimed, “This film should win an award for the worst movie of 1970!” (Ok, I’m dating myself.) and then the movie company makes an ad for the movie and they quote “Critics say this movie should win an award!” A lesson I clearly have never forgotten. The precursor to alternative facts!
Talking about high school… the art teacher! How many times have I heard people bring up the ART TEACHER as a reason they are voting one way or another. Here’s the deal:

  • Mrs. Skalkos is a wonderful person and as an art teacher and jewelry maker she was loved by all at Joel Barlow High School
  • Barlow has a plan in place to right size the school when there is a change of around 200 students. The departure of the class of 2017 put that change into effect.
  • It was determined by the school administration that there were not enough students taking art, which is an elective, for them to maintain their full staff of art teachers
  • According to the teachers’ union contract, the last teacher in was the first to be laid off. Mrs. Skalkos was the last art teacher hired. So, it was the negotiated contract that determined her dismissal.
  • The school hopes to maintain the jewelry classes although that is not a given.
  • This has nothing to do with the primary/ elections for Redding Board of Finance or Redding Board of Education. Barlow has its own Region 9 Board of Education, which also functions as its own Board of Finance.

On to another topic: a letter went around and was plastered in almost every Redding group on Facebook where a conversation between our Chairman of the Board of Education Melinda Irwin and Board of Finance member (and candidate) Mark Lewis was relayed. Redding Civic League’s Jeff Fligelman, who said he overheard the conversation, also signed it. This conversation was not part of an official meeting and was not recorded by video, voice recorder or secretary taking minutes. Ed Miller said he decided to run for the Board of Finance based on this conversation although he did not witness or hear it himself. Democrats are being asked to use this conversation as a basis for their vote. I have a big problem with this.

  • Mr. Miller and Dr. Irwin are members of the Redding Civic league, a quasi-political party that wishes to place Mr. Miller on the Board of Finance unseating Mr. Lewis. The letter and report of the conversation had that spin.
  • All official business and conversation needs to take place IN the parameters of a meeting, which is recorded in several media. This was not in any way official or recorded.
  • If I am going to make a decision based on a conversation, I want to hear it with my own ears. I want to understand why it was said, if it was actually said and the context
  • The entire incident is hearsay. Mr Miller is an attorney and he knows it would be thrown out if we were in court
  • Don’t make important decisions based on things other people hear. Listen and evaluate for yourself.

There has been a lot of talk about repairing the trust between the boards and there is a long road ahead. Most people know that I don’t like snark. But, if someone is rude but does their job effectively, I will still vote for them. If they are rude to me, I will call them out for it to their face (in person, not online.) I personally told the chairman of the Board of Finance and one of the members that I thought their comments (including the bake sale) IN A MEETING were inappropriate. I have also suggested there should be public comment at every meeting and everyone should have time to have their say. I didn’t grumble about it to my friends or complain on social media.

Look at the facts, not the anecdotes.

Don’t believe everything you read in social media, or in the paper or what you hear on TV. I’m not asking you believe me either. Go research it and find out for yourself.

Cast your vote on Tuesday.

If you have comments about this editorial, please send them to me in a letter to the editor at susan@hellonewsct.com.