The BET held a special meeting via Zoom on Tuesday afternoon with just one item on the agenda: to reconsider FY 21 approved budget before it gets sent on to the RTM for approval.
The special meeting was scheduled at the request of Democrats on the BET after an outcry from public school parents over cuts to the education budget.
The Republican controlled BET had voted last week during a contentious meeting to cut $3 million from the education budget leaving it at current academic year spending levels.
The Democrats had proposed instead a $700,000 cut.
Despite the meeting lasting only about 40 minutes, and almost 400 people listening on mute, most of the session was taken up by arguments over motions, Robert’s Rules of Order, and consulting the new Town Attorney Vin Marino.
The Republicans have insisted they were not “cutting,” but rather keeping the education budget “flat,” and they stood resolute on Tuesday.
Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones has said that education budgets take place in advance of the academic year because of the focus on staffing. She has also said that a $3million cut would have sweeping impacts.
During Tuesday’s meeting the Democrats and Republicans were at odds, and voices were raised.
The discussion got bogged down by technicalities over motions and different interpretation of Robert’s Rules between BET member Jeff Ramer and town Attorney Marino.
In a response to a motion to suspend rules, BET chair Mike Mason complained, “I’m being asked to have a special meeting. I have to follow Robert’s Rules, now I’m being asked not to follow Robert’s Rules. I hear the personal comments and it’s not appreciated.”
Mr. Ramer said there were hundreds of residents on the Zoom call and a thousand emails had been received.
The Democrats noted the outcry among parents against the cuts.
Last week parents staged a drive by protest in front of town Hall and submitted countless letters to the editor against the cuts.
There were also letters in favor of cuts from people who argued the extenuating circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic created uncertainty about the future and meant cuts were necessary.
“A majority of this body is not interested,” Mr. Ramer said.
“Let’s talk about what really needs to happen in this town. We’re watching our peer communities like Stamford, New Canaan and Westport take action just like us,” chair Mike Mason said. “West Hartford cut $4.5 million from their school budget.”
“Since we’ve passed the budget, health care came back to cost us another $900,000,” Mason added. “These are my comments. As chair I get to make comments.”
The Democrats asked for the same opportunity.
BET Vice Chair Karen Fassuliotis said, “According to Robert’s Rules the chair of the body has the last word.”
“You’re stonewalling our caucus and our public,”said Democratic BET member Laura Erickson.
“That’s your opinion,” Ms Fassuliotis said. “This is shameful.”
“We agree on that,” Mr. Ramer said.
“We came here to compromise,” said David Weisbrod. “Shame on you.”
A vote on a motion by Jeff Ramer to override the ruling of the chair went along party lines and failed to carry.
“For heaven’s sake, we’re into this meeting for a half hour. A proposal is for a reasonable compromise,” Mr. Weisbrod pleaded. “The town is begging us for a reasonable compromise so that people whose voices have been spoken are heard. I think we could spend more time on the substance of what is before us.”
“The 387 people on this call have had to listen to this,” he added. “They could be much better off listening to the substance of a compromise bringing all the different parties together. Why can’t we hear the compromise, suspend the rules and let Mr. Ramer’s motion go forward out of decency for the people who took the time to come on this call.”
There was a motion to adjourn and a vote.
All the Republicans voted to adjourn.
“You gotta be kidding me,” Mrs. Erickson said before she voted not to adjourn.
The other Democrats also voted not to adjourn.
The meeting was adjourned.
After the meeting, James Waters commented by email. “By relying on arcane parliamentary tactics to stifle debate, the Republican members of the BET today told the 371 concerned residents who dialed in and the hundreds of others who protested one resounding message: ‘shove it.'”
Waters said the school cuts will have wide-ranging, negative impacts on children, public health, the economy, and our property values.
“The BET is on the wrong side of history here and there are going to be consequences, including to every elected Republican in our town, since the party now fully owns the decision to cut school funding,” he said.