Published April 16. 2014 4:00AM
The purpose of holding public hearings is to hear from the public. It would logically follow that, if the people send a clear message, their leaders should act accordingly.
This is not what happened in Stonington.
Last week residents packed the high school auditorium to send a loud and clear message. They wanted the Board of Finance to restore the cuts it had made in the Board of Education's proposed 2014-15 fiscal year budget.
The crowd of more than 400 cheered speakers who said they were willing to pay higher taxes to maintain the quality of the town schools. A good school system is worth the investment because it helps property values, speakers argued. Others expressed fears that a parsimonious approach to budgeting was causing Stonington schools to fall behind neighboring communities in terms of quality.
Anyone listening to the hearing could only draw the conclusion that the vast majority of those in attendance wanted the $525,000 cut from the school board budget proposal fully restored.
On Monday, the Board of Finance instead, on a 4-2 vote, restored a bit more than half, $270,000.
One could make the argument that the finance board was showing fiscal temperance in restoring only some of the funding. As now proposed by the board, school spending in the coming fiscal year will be $34.3 million, an increase of $539,161 over current spending. Combined with municipal spending, it brings the total proposal budget to $58.5 million, raising taxes by 0.55 mills to 20.42.
The problem is that the finance board's action was not responsive to the clear policy signal sent by the people. In addition to attracting a public hearing crowd larger than had been seen in many years, the board received a non-binding petition with about 1,400 signatures asking for full restoration of funding.
The better course would have been for the board to restore the school funding and await the results of the budget referendum, tentatively set for May 6. If voters rejected the budget, the board would then have had justification for making further cuts. School supporters have reason to be upset that they will not get a chance to pass the budget with the funding fully restored.