Thursday, January 14, 2010

Teacher Layoffs Loom Again

Every year, the school budget is put under review, this year is no different than any other year. The Milford Board of education, already mired in difficulty is awaiting a resolution on this years budgetary issues.

The issues regarding education have often been blamed on the city charter, and union protagonists in the School system. Talk by some Board of Ed members has already taken place to re-open the city charter to address these problems.

However, critics of this action warn that re-opening the Charter will result in more changes than just those intended to be specifically addressed.

The issue this year has to do with teacher layoffs, due to the cities inability to close a growing multimillion dollar gap. This issue over educational funding has happened before, and last round of negotiations resulted in alarm that 180 teachers would be fired.

The result was a happy one last year, no teachers were let go, especially after the "Education Outrage Machine" went into full spin. For those who do not remember, kids were circulating petitions with thousands of signatures on them, and the Board of Ed meetings were packed with standing room only protesters.

The final result was a mild culling of the school system, marking the loss of several Administrative positions, and cutbacks to school services including landscaping and energy efficiency savings.

This year the picture is more daunting, because aside from the multi-million dollar shortfall, our schools are in disrepair and need costly improvements that are approaching almost the entire annual school budget of 80 plus million.

These issues are being addressed as part of a triage system at the moment, a system determined by the school engineers who have been making emergency repair requests. However not all are happy with this approach especially after the Milford PTA got fed up with our kids learning in janitors closets, and doing their science work on carts instead of labs.

The problem was partially fixed last fall when the Democratically controlled Board of Alderman defied the Wishes of Mayor Richetelli (including the defection of Republican Alderman Ray Vitale) and succeeded in defeating the Mayors agenda.

The problems this year are the same, Special Education funding is still of grave concern, and a steady stream of complaints and lawsuits regarding Special Ed. are plaguing our school system. The Bureaucracy, and state legislature still have no idea on how to best address these concerns and continue to impose ineffective unfunded mandates that the city must pay each year.

The state Constitution requires that all children from Kindergarten to Grade 12 be educated FOR FREE, and if cities cannot meet that obligation due to the physical or psychological condition of a child, parents have a legal right to sue the city. These lawsuits force Milford's taxpayers (in many cases) to pay $50,000.00 to $150,000.00 a year to a parent whose child had to be educated in a private school.

Part of the issue with Special Education also appears to be the towns open door policy. The law also prohibits the School district from refusing children, like those at The Boys and Girls Club on Wheelers farm Road the services they need including custom transportation.

When the city of Milford addresses these issues too well, we risk becoming a Magnet city. Parents of special needs children will often relocate to towns, with the best services to educate their kids. The result of doing a good job can inadvertently become a moral hazard.

This hazard is often on the backs of lower income people who already lose their homes in town at a rate of two to three a week. The loss is often due to foreclosure, these happen when property taxes are too high, the economy is weak, and our local elected leaders fail to find solutions that satisfy the issues of property owners.

Some cities like Westport allow for people over 70 to stop paying their property tax all together. But the catch is to collect it from the estate of which the city is the First Lien Holder. Most cities including ours already have a program in place to grant tax relief to Veterans and the Elderly, but the cost of education and the dwindling state and Federal Resources are forcing towns into a process called Binding Arbitration.

This Arbitration is often a last ditch attempt, whereby arbitrators in Hartford settle monetary disputes between city unions, taxpayers, and school boards. Since most people do not understand that Arbitrators have the right to override decisions by school boards, a frustrated public retaliates with their votes in municipal elections.

The people who are voted out of office are usually completely powerless and never had any meaningful authority over a contractual monetary dispute in the first place. Regardless, this has somewhat managed to trivialize the ability of the Milford School board to respond to any financial settlement outside a drastic, or perhaps worse catastrophic financial event.

In order for there to ever be any resolution on education, budgets or negotiations, all parties must agree to accept the money that reasonably could be paid and derived from taxes and grants. The most irresponsible actions any union or board could ever take, is to litigate a situation to the point where it forces our city to continue toward a path of financial indebtedness, or worse, default on its current obligations.

The solutions to these problems rests soley in the hands of those people who created them. The caveat (to quote Einstein), however, "is that the same level of thinking that got us into this crisis cannot be used to resolve it."

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