Checks and Balances — Julia Werth Reflects on her Work in 2020

Checks and balances, that’s what our country is built on. Everything from the federal government to the local school board needs proper oversight, questioning and input from a variety of voices to work best. Without in-depth reporting, a key check on the system is missing.

This past April, when I started reporting at the Connecticut Examiner, my goal was to add that check back in. One story at a time, I hoped to keep residents informed. To break down the barriers between school districts and their constituents. To explain the good and the questionable actions that are taking place. To provide the accountability that only local reporting can in an area that has been lacking it for more than a decade.

I wanted to give some oversight to the local school districts to help the taxpayers know exactly how nearly 80 percent of their property taxes are being used. And with more than 120 education stories I think I did.

From uncovering a land purchase and misuse of funds in Region 4 to a series on the challenges that face special education students across the state to continued debate over turf fields in Lyme-Old Lyme it has been quite the year. I have worked to ensure that more residents (I don’t think we’re at most yet) know a little bit more about when, where and who makes the decisions on how to spend their tax money.

I’ve learned most residents aren’t aware that once a budget is voted on, that’s it. A referendum on an increase in the budget is the only way typical taxpayers have a say. They can’t determine how the money is used, just how much the school district gets.

In regional school districts – which are more common in semi-rural southeastern Connecticut – that lack of awareness is exacerbated. The decisions are no longer brought before finance commissions or boards of selectmen before they are made. There is no final check done by town officials, instead just the board of education members, or sometimes just the superintendent, determines what shall be done.

Those individuals can make terrific decisions that improve education for all residents. Those individuals, however, can also make decisions that increase taxes and mill rates without any perceivable benefit to the townspeople.

In 2020, I hope to continue this effort.

I’ll be watching the turf field decision in Lyme-Old Lyme and how Region 4 works to repair the trust they’ve lost with many of their residents. I’ll be keeping an eye on how much the state decides to fund the education cost-sharing grant, and what that means for school districts ability to continue the current programming they offer. I’ll continue to puzzle out how districts respond to the unfunded and unenforced mandates required by the legislature and the department of education.

In 2020, I hope to hear from you. The emails, phone calls and letters to the editor I receive make my reporting possible and the experience for readers richer as more voices join the conversation about public education in our state.

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