The Weston League of Women Voters (LWV) held its 27th annual Speak Up event on Saturday, Feb. 3, at the Weston Public Library.
The event takes place each year in early February and invites area residents to voice concerns and ask questions of a number town and state officials. Speak Up was moderated by LWV member Laura Smits.
Westonites with questions and comments stood at the back of the packed community room in the library. They had the chance to address their questions to specific members of the panel, which included Weston’s selectmen, school officials and more.
Timothy Zack of Valley Forge Road said he moved to Weston three years ago with his wife for the school system. He asked what the town is doing to overcome some of the fiscal obstacles related to the budget.
“We have put forth a budget that on the special education budget is a growth budget, but otherwise it’s a reduction budget,” said Superintendent Bill McKersie. “We have looked carefully at the fiscal crisis that Connecticut is in.”
Board of Education chairman Gina Albert said that aside from the necessary special education increases, the school budget is relatively flat.
According to Albert, much of the special education spending comes because the burden of proof is on the school district in Connecticut.
“If you have a student in the district who is receiving special education services in the district, there is a collaborative relationship between the district and families,” said Albert. “If a family thinks the district isn’t serving the student’s needs, they have a right to pull the student and put them in a private facility.”
According to Albert, the entire burden of proof of “trying to decide if that student can be served by our district” is placed on the town.
“It’s an undue burden on us,” said Albert. “We want to work with these families and we want it to be a collaboration, but it’s not once you reach that point.”
Effie Thieme of November Trail said she is concerned with the way the budget is characterized regarding special education.
“It feels like you’re pitting the most vulnerable in town against everyone else,” said Thieme. “It sets us back. It’s a question of tone and it starts from the top.”
Thieme said special education children are part of the town and they consistently feel excluded.
“When you start saying that the special education budget is the only part that got an increase, what I hear is every other parent in town saying. ‘Why the hell do they get that benefit?’” said Thieme. “These are the children that truly need help.”
McKersie said Weston is “embracing” all of the school’s students. “My approach is embrace all of our students — we truly look long-term. We need to embrace the needs of our special education students and families. We need to do much better for them.”
Steve Ezzes, chairman of Weston’s Board of Finance, asked the three state representatives present about the possibility of tolls in the state.
State Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26) said her constituents already feel “overburdened” with taxes and she will be opposed to tolls.
“I will be opposing tolls for multiple reasons; quite frankly, the added benefit isn’t large enough,” she said. “The years to get it implemented would take too long and we’d lose money that we get from the federal government.”
State Rep. Adam Dunsby (R-135) said he is also opposed to tolls.
“Connecticut has a 25-cent gas tax which is one of the highest in the country,” said Dunsby. “This is also couched in terms of needing new revenue — we have a lot of revenue. We need to look at other things. We need to look to putting holds on what the governor says are essential projects.”
Dunsby said that if someday electric cars take over and the gas tax becomes irrelevant, then he would support tolls, but “right now” they aren’t needed.
State Sen. Tony Hwang (R-28) said the way the state operates is unsustainable.
“Any additional taxes are regressive and will be counterproductive,” said Hwang. “Let’s re-prioritize government and look at what our priorities are.”
Hwang said he won’t blankly say no to tolls, but he said the state government needs to “put everything on the table” in a bipartisan manner.
“Saying no right away isn’t the right way to go,” said Hwang. “Saying ‘my way or the highway’ doesn’t work at the state.”
Boucher said most of those burdened by the toll would be Connecticut residents, even if many out-of-state drivers use state roads.
“This would be the most burdensome on those with the least ability to pay,” said Boucher.
A variety of environmental issues were discussed at Speak Up, including questions about plastic bags and Weston’s newfound agreement with Allco to receive solar energy from a farm in Windham.
Larry Shore of Blueberry Hill Road said Weston is a leading town in many fields, but asked how the town goes forward to promote reusable bags.
“Sustainability is a big push for the selectmen,” said First Selectman Chris Spaulding. “We’ve been having ongoing conversations about sustainability and we’ve handed off the plastic bag initiative to them.”
Natalie Terrill, chairman of the Sustainability Committee, said the committee is working to craft language for a campaign to inform citizens of the problems with plastic bag use.
“We’re inviting all of the businesses to a meeting to discuss the initiative and come up with language that works for the businesses and the health of the community,” she said. “We’ll be discussing that further with the Board of Selectmen.”
That meeting will take place on Thursday, Feb. 8, in the Town Hall Commission Room.
Spaulding said the town’s recently signed solar energy deal is one of the ways the town is working toward sustainability.
“We just signed a deal to provide solar-based energy to the grid in Connecticut,” said Spaulding. “It reduces the amount of dirty energy going into the overall grid.”
Peter Blau of Lyons Plain Road asked about the town’s vetting of the vendor in the solar agreement.
“Given the town’s past history of being sued by a solar contractor, did the selectmen look at all of the liabilities?” asked Blau.
Spaulding and Town Administrator Jonathan Luiz said the town had four different attorneys vet the contract that was signed.
“The contract itself is very tight,” said Luiz. “I’ve checked references from other municipalities that have done deals with this company and they have said they’re happy with the deals.”
According to Luiz, if the solar farm doesn’t produce the anticipated number of electrons, the town doesn’t pay for them.
Speak Up is available to view in its entirety at lwvweston.org and on Channel 79.