The Superbus's Thoughtpad

Derby Settles Yearly Tax War, Citizens Continue War On Education

Posted by Chris Bowen on May 31, 2012

Last night, in a contentious meeting, the Derby Board of Appropriations and Taxation settled on their budget for 2012-2013.

After an emotional public comment session that pitted Derby senior citizens against Derby school parents, the city’s Board of Apportionment and Taxation approved a 2012-2013 budget Wednesday totaling ($37,050,868).

The new tax rate is 35.5 mills — an increase of 2.4 mills, according to the tax board, if you adjust the current budget to reflect this year’s revaluation in Derby.

As usual, the education budget was the item that was most hotly debated.

Almost everyone in the audience at Wednesday’s meeting were there because they received a robocall from either the Derby school district or Mayor Anthony Staffieri. It was standing room only, with some 60 people in the Aldermanic Chambers in City Hall.

The debate over how much to fund Derby schools was really the only bone of contention, as it has been for at least the past three years.

The arguments took two different sides. On one side were the education advocates, of which I’m included, who advocated for the education budget to be left alone. On the other side were homeowners and conservatives who felt that the school budget was big enough, and that they couldn’t pay any more in taxes (once the home reevaluations were concluded, it was determined that the city would be going up 2.4 mills).

My own stance, which I stated again last night, was twofold. For one, I don’t believe that we can keep going up in costs every single year. Something must be done to address the constantly increasing non-discretionary costs that occur every single year. The vast majority of every budget that has union workers around it is based around payroll; I don’t have the Derby education numbers in front of me, but Chief Gerald Narowski told me last night that 94% of his budget is payroll, an absolutely astounding number. Unfortunately, things are not in Derby’s favour in this regard. From the information I received at this time last year from Dr. Steven Tracy, Derby’s soon to be former Superintendent, the way contract negotiations go is that every three years, they go to arbitration, where it’s done on a last, best offer; both sides produce their last, best offers, and an arbitrator picks one of those numbers. There’s no middle ground; it’s one or the other. So Derby would really be risking it if they went in and gave three straight zeroes; they’d likely get laughed out of the room. So a middle ground must be reached, preferably prior to that point. Due to this, there will always be rising costs associated with at least the education budget. This MUST change, but I fear that’s a pipe dream. The teacher’s unions are, to put it bluntly, too powerful, and if anyone knows that, it’s Governor Dannel Malloy – ostensibly their ally – who just about ruined his efforts at reforming this state’s education system, and have contributed mightily to the problems in big cities, especially Bridgeport.

But at the same time, while we figure out just what the hell to do about that problem, we can’t just take this money away from the kids. It’s not like we’re cutting frivolous programs; we’ve already cut staff members, librarians, an assistant superintendent (that dastardly “overhead” opponents keep talking about), and with about $100,000 less in the school budget than intended, other programs will likely be cut, or hurt; it’s likely that Derby will have to go pay-to-play for sports or music, something I’ll tackle in the future. My opponents on this issue like to talk about making sure the money gets to the kids, and it’s a valid complaint, as I noted a paragraph ago, but I’m unwilling to cut my nose to spite my face. The past few years, Derby has gutted their school system, which was already struggling, and now it’s so bad that we’re getting money from the state because we’re an underperforming school. Or, as I put it on Tuesday night, it’s “we stink” money, because we STINK. Our scores reflect our effort, and as a Derby resident, I am insulted by it, more so that the Mayor was considering using the money to write it into the budget as an excuse to give the schools a zero increase.

What bothers me the most are some of the people who have come out against this budget who are either not even bothering to be educated, willfully wrong, or flat-out selfish. Some of the worst I’ve heard:

* “I don’t care, we can’t raise taxes!” (So we’re willing to cut our noses to spite our faces? There’s nothing left)
* “We need to cut overhead! There’s too many administrators!” (That might be true. But name one. Find out what that person does.)
* “We need teachers who teach! Our teachers are failing!” (This is flat-out wrong, and ignorant. Our teachers are doing amazing * things, considering the crap they put up with. It’s why I have some cognitive dissonance about slamming the unions which, by the way, I did while literally standing next to the union president. She’s offered to present her side, and I will take her up on it)
* “If students use something, they should pay for it! Sports should be pay to play!” (Self-defeating. Derby is already a city of haves (largely, Bradley School) and have-nots (particularly the transient areas closer to downtown). Our children should at least be afforded the opportunities while they’re in school to achieve something. Take away sports, or similar after school programs, and you’re taking away any incentive they have to stay focused. If you think crime around Anson St. and similar areas is bad NOW…)
* “I put my kids through private school!” (Good for you. My points above still apply. Though I am at least educating myself further on voucher programs, something I’ve opposed on the grounds of religious freedom)

It also bothered me that people – on both sides – had virtually no respect for anyone. I understand people are upset, and frustrated. But speaking over people – including one person, who literally spoke above the treasurer and the chairman of the tax board, outside of the public portion – gets nothing done. I had very respectful conversations with people I disagree with last night, including Mayor Stafferi and former tax chair Judy Szewczyk; I respect these people and their opinions. We have to put our anger aside and get to solving these problems. Until then, we’re just going in circles.