Many have asked: What if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it -- does it make a sound? Well Waterford’s Representative Town Meeting pulled the opposite trick Wednesday, making plenty of noise where everybody could hear it, but nothing ever fell.
The RTM unanimously approved a $74,335,161 budget, $2.3 million more than last year, and $2,300 higher than what the board of finance . This came after several members tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to cut the budget, while taking shots at the various department heads.
Nobody got it worse than Superintendent Jerome Belair and Board of Education Chairman Donald Blevins Wednesday night, who presented a that laid off 11 certified staff members. The RTM did not cut a dime, but had plenty to say to the education officials.
Several RTM members pointed out $10,000 for conferences for board of education members, while the board of finance members and the RTM members do not go to any conferences. Also, others were angry over Belair spending $4,000 to paint his office and to buy new furniture.
“I’m boiling; it is insulting that these things are in the budget,” RTM member Dr. John Foley said. “We are painting offices, we are sending the boards on conferences and meanwhile we are cutting and art and athletics and other things for the kids.”
Member Paul Goldstein was critical of Belair, saying he “did not find creative solutions to solve this budget.” Although it was frustrating that the teachers did not accept a wage freeze, the superintendent is responsible for not doing more to save the jobs of teachers, he said.
East Lyme, which serves almost the exact same amount of students as Waterford, has a $2.5 million lower budget than Waterford, RTM member Theodore Olynciw said. That is unacceptable, Olynciw said.
“I do this comparison with (former superintendent) Randy Collins and (assistant superintendent) Craig (Powers) almost every year, line item by line item, and we always are more,” Olynciw said. “Why do we keep paying for the same?”
Belair said Waterford has higher salaries than East Lyme, although said he would like to do comparisons between the two towns.
Others directed more of their anger to Blevins. The board of education needs to put its philosophical arguments aside and look at the practical situation, and install a pay-to-participate program to save athletics, Teresa Wilensky said.
“We don’t live in the philosophical world, we live in the real world,” WIlensky said. “And the real world costs money.”
Blevins has been against pay to participate, arguing “public education should remain public.” Wilensky countered that this solves a problem, and most parents in town would much rather pay than see a program go away.
Blevins countered again, saying it is easy for individuals to say they are willing, but individuals do not speak for the entire population, some of whom can’t afford pay to participate. Lower income students would be paid for by the town, but doing all that extra paperwork winds up costing the town almost as much money as it brings in, Blevins said.
Ledyard charges $100 a sport, and that seems to work, Goldstein argued. Waterford should do the same, to keep all of its sports, he said.
The board of education passed a budget that cut indoor track and the golf team. The board will make its final decision on pay to participate on May 26.
Wilensky also argued for the board of education to allow advertising on the football and baseball fields (banners draped over the fences) to make money, and corporate sponsorships. Blevins said the board would consider all options.
With the RTM delivering final action on the budget, it becomes official, and the process is closed. The board of finance will set the tax rate soon, likely at 18.85 mills, up from 18.04. That would represent a 4.5 percent tax increase.