The Public Hearing on the town budget was held last night at the Bethel High School. The packed auditorium was dominated by parents and teachers who called for a reinstatement of the $400,000 cut from the education budget. However, there were also many speakers who did not have a vested interest in the education system.
A line of speakers continued for almost two and a half hours. Almost no one came to defend the budget cuts.
In answer to the question of how those cuts would be carried out, Bethel School Superintendent Kevin Smith, Ph.D., said that four teachers would be cut, three from elementary school, and one teacher would be cut from the language program. He also said that the class sizes would increase.
A few Bethel Public Library supporters spoke about reinstating $3,000 to the Library budget. Tia Murphy, board member of the Library, said, “The library is a real community center.”
Murphy noted that 66% of Bethel residents have library cards, and that 138,536 people visited the library from 2010-2011. According to Murphy, the $3,000 budget cut would eliminate the purchase of 107 books, or 150 children’s books, or 120 DVDs or 60 audio books.
Irene Drake, educator and parent, said that a non-partisan Center for American Progress rated Bethel Schools as one of 10 districts where the schools have a high return on their investment.
One teacher told the board that whether or not they have a child in the classroom, through real estate values, they benefit from the school system.
The only person who did not challenge the cuts was William Michael, Jr. He offered instead the idea of equally distributing the $400,000 cut throughout each line of the budget.
A world language teacher, said, “There is nothing more inspirational than watching a child experience the power a new language.”
Jim Lacey, and many others who attended the evening, said the decision for the cuts should not rest with the Board of Finance. “Let the voters decide what they can afford or not afford. He offered an Oscar Wilde quote, ‘A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ Let the people decide. This is not May, or June, after one, two, or God forbid, the third referendum,” Lacey continued. “We have not gone to referendum and I ask why?”
Kim Lamone challenged the Board of Finance and said it was only fair for the audience to know exactly which board members have voted for the cuts. Board Chair Kingston and Tim Draper said yes, and Lamone said that every year, Phil Gallagher has not voted for education, to which he replied that she was out of line, and added, “I am not up here to take personal remarks from you.”
All three women on the panel voted to keep the budget intact. Lamone said, “Instead of standing here until 11 o’clock at night, can everyone who wants to keep the 400,000 clap?”
The question resulted in thunderous applause and a standing ovation by many in the audience.
Mary O’Leary, Registrar of Voters, commended the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance for a very fair budget and thanked them for not eliminating the non-government agencies. O'Leary also asked that money be added to the library account. She also noted the Registrar of Voters has not had a raise in nine years.
Parun Mendiratta spoke passionately about his daughter’s third grade experience, saying the year had changed her as a person. “If I think about who I am today, I think of my parents and teachers above anyone else. My heart fills with so much respect, not just because they are raising one set of children but they do this year after year after year. I cannot imagine a group of people who make such an impact. I chose to live in Bethel for the schools. Put the money back.”
Bob Legnard thanked the Board of Finance for their hard work, and said, “You have the opportunity to put that money back.”
An emotional mother talked about the success of her autistic child in the Bethel school system. “Until he came to school, he could not speak, he could not look at anyone. He could not acknowledge someone. He now reads, writes better than most doctors, and he can do math. The teachers here are amazing. We have something here that most people in this country, and in this state, do not have. Pay now or pay later.”
Finally, Phil Gallagher defended the Board of Finance by saying that their decisions had to take more than the gathered group into consideration. “All factors must be weighed. Income has gone down, the gas prices have gone up $.35 cents a gallon since January, and that’s less money people have to pay their taxes.”
Gallagher later said, “There will be a charter revision committee, come and tell them to change the way the government works in Bethel. Do away with the Board of Finance. The BOF filters the demands, what we can afford with what people want. Not just your demands. This is the hardest board to be on. I have scars all over my body,” bringing laughter to the crowd.