Sunday, September 5, 2004

School taxes ignite fracas in Fairfield

Click here to e-mail Peter Bronson
Student fees to play sports at Fairfield Schools: $630. Fliers to defeat another levy: $700. The school mascot busted for honking his horn in front of levy opponents: priceless.

Welcome to ground zero in the tax wars, where parents struggle with traffic jams and kids get up long before the sun because busing has been deleted for about 1,800 high-school students.

Student participation in sports is down at least a third, said Fairfield superintendent Robert Farrell. No wonder. Fees to play football cost more than season tickets for the Bengals. For each high-school sport, $630; middle-school sports, $430; marching band, $350, other activities, $260.

"Some of the students arrive 45 minutes to an hour before school starts. We have four police officers every day helping with traffic,'' said Farrell. "I drop off several kids each morning from my neighborhood.''

Arnold Engel, leader of Citizens for Accountability and Results in Education, said: "It's real simple. What they've done is blackmail the public, especially with the busing. They could have cut other things.''

The district saves only $400,000 on busing cuts, he said. "Write this down: We don't have a funding problem in public schools. We have a spending problem.''

It's the same story wherever levies trigger feuding. "It's tearing the community apart, pitting neighbor against neighbor,'' Farrell said. "It's sad.''

Engel's artillery sounds like levy battles everywhere: Waste and mismanagement, overpaid teachers and too many administrators.

Farrell replied: "We last voted an increase for taxes to operate in 1992. Our educational program is highly successful with a student population that has both greater economic and racial diversity each year. We achieved 16 of 18 criteria (for excellence) in the most recent state report card. Cutting busing and extracurriculars is not extortion but a school district's last resort to preserve their primary mission.''

The intense battles started with a levy defeat in 2001. But even three straight years of levy battles makes Fairfield the West Bank/Gaza Strip of the school-tax war.

And Engel is not giving up. He claims he has 220 supporters who will fight the November request, although it has been cut by $3 million. "People were ready to pass a levy for $9 million a year (on Aug. 2) to bring back $400,000 in busing. It makes no sense,'' he says.

While the district pleaded for a levy in 2001, he said, the board broke its promise to freeze salaries and gave teachers a 5 percent cost-of-living raise, on top of 4.5 percent step increases. "They lied to the public.''

Farrell admits Fairfield teacher salaries are the highest in the county, but says Engel distorts the complicated contract. Step increases average 1.89 percent this year, he said, and 15 teachers have been cut. "Seventy-five percent of the districts pay more than we do for starting salaries.''

Engel says his family is being harassed. "They're getting the kids to do their dirty work.''

High school senior class president and school mascot Jordan Kessler was found guilty last month of excessive horn-honking in front of Engel's house - and was ordered to stay away.

Farrell said there's "no way'' the schools encouraged that. "We've had signs damaged, too, but we didn't file a police report.''

It's an uncivil war: blue levy backers vs. gray tax rebels.

But even Robert E. Lee eventually surrendered. In Fairfield, the latest levy is $6.4 million a year. That might be a bargain.

Peace is priceless.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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