Parents lobby for budget

NEWTOWN - They'll be stuffing envelopes, making phone calls, hanging signs, sending out e-mails, attending marathon meetings - everything short of climbing up the Main Street flag pole and shouting, all in the name of getting the school budget approved.

They are the members of "Support Our Schools," a group of Newtown parents who said they have to do more this year to get the word out about the budget.

In the minds of many parents, last year was a disaster for the school district. It took three votes to get the combined town and school budgets approved. The Board of Education
and the Board of Finance made significant cuts in the school budget which caused some popular programs to disappear.

Not this year, parents vow.

"We trying to be a little more organized," said Gene Vetrano , a father of two children in the school district and co-chairman of "SOS." The group has a steering committee of about 25 parents.

"We're going to try to put signs out, which we haven't done in the past. We're trying to reach more parents."

It is still early in the budget process. The school board adopted a $53.3 million budget this week by a 5-1 vote. The school budget and the town budget were scheduled to be submitted to the Board of Finance last Friday. The next finance board meeting is scheduled for Feb. 27.

"We'll attend those meetings and have as many people as we can get up and speak in support of not cutting any of the budgets any further," Vetrano said.

Parents said the school budget is very lean and, perhaps, a little mean. They are worried conservative enrollment projections for the school district next year might be exceeded, which could leave the district scrambling.

"What happens is that they put a freeze in there on buying textbooks, bringing in guest speakers, whatever. And then the children suffer," Vetrano said.

Amy Cameron, an SOS member, said the district isn't spending enough on education. She was disappointed that the Board of Education cut about $500,000 out of the budget last week before it was adopted.

She fears more cuts will take place in front of the Board of Finance and the town's Legislative Council .

"I'm disappointed at how lean the budget is and, quite frankly, worried that it will become leaner. I'm hoping that it will take only one referendum to pass it this time, but I'm always cautious in a town like Newtown," she said.

While the school budget is up 7.3 percent from this year, an early draft of the town budget shows spending up by 5.9 percent.

The spending increase in the town budget is the largest in many years, driven mostly, First Selectman Herb Rosenthal said earlier this month, by rising health care costs and higher interest rates on town debt.

Judging by the three go-rounds for the budget last year and the budget vote of 2002, there will be at least 2,000 Newtown residents who vote "no" when they go to the polls April 27.

However, the political and economic climate this year could make it easier for the budget to pass. Last year Newtown residents were mugged by a revaluation, which caused tax bills to skyrocket.

"It's a much better climate, although some disagree," Vetrano said. "Obviously the reval last year weighed heavily on a lot of people's minds."

No organized group has come out against the school budget yet. Last year, a group called the Concerned Citizens of Newtown created a Web site that took the position that spending by Newtown officials was out of control.

William Sheluck, who ran on the Republican line against Democrat Herb Rosenthal for first selectman in November, created a political action committee two weeks ago called " Newtown Alliance ."

"Newtown Alliance" hopes to concentrate on quality of life issues, hold forums on town topics and establish a Web site.

The fledgling group has not issued a formal stand on the school budget, but Sheluck said it looks like a lean spending plan.

"The number may frighten people, but when you really go through the details and look at the specifics, there are no frills in there," he said.

Contact Eugene Driscoll


or at (203) 426-3711.