BERLIN - With the start of the new year, Mayor Mark Kaczynski and Superintendent of Schools Brian Benigni are looking to accomplish several things in 2018. The state budget crisis has an impact on all of their initiatives.
Kaczynski, who won re-election to his second term with 300 votes more than his Democratic challenger, Rich Paskiewicz, said he is focusing on finding a solution to the $600,000 in state aid cuts for the current fiscal year.
“The town and Board of Education are going to have to meet,” said Kaczynski.
At a recent meeting of the Board of Finance, which Kazynski thinks will help free up time for the council by handling finance issues now, acting Town Manager Jack Healy proposed cutting $400,000 from schools and $200,000 from the town budget. The council approved the cuts on Tuesday.
“The town is already pretty mean and lean, there’s not a lot of fat anywhere,” said Kaczynski. “The Board of Education has their issues, too. We’ll have to work out everything.”
The cuts this year, Kaczynski said, could get worse and continue into next year’s budget, which is also in his line of sight.
“They’ve got to get the debt situation under control,” he said of the state legislature. State officials recently found out there is an over $200 million deficit.
With more state aid cuts to the town, less equipment and road paving, and consolidation of town services or positions through attrition could result, Kaczynski said. While it is the board of finance who determines the tax rate, Kaczynski said a modest tax increase next year is possible.
He also said building a new police station will have to wait given the town’s debt load, amid the financial climate of Berlin and the state. A previous $21 million version of the project was shot down at referendum and a $16 million version was defeated by the council, purely for budget reasons, Kaczynski has said.
Perhaps, a senior/community center or some form of mixed-use residential and retail buildings on the town owned properties near the train station could help mitigate the cuts with additional tax revenue, Kaczynski said.
“There are a lot of options,” he added. He said action on the five Request for Qualification submissions for development on the town-owned parcels could occur by summer.
Benigni also concerned with budget
After 25 years of being with the school district, Benigni has his shot at the superintendent’s post. Former Superintendent David Erwin retired on Jan. 2.
“We are scrutinizing where we have costs and savings,” said Benigni. Benigni was McGee Middle School principal and a teacher in the district before assuming the assistant superintendent job.
Some of the concerns facing the school district, Benigni said, include adhering to new “Next Generation Science” standards that will give students a more analytical understanding of the material. While being implemented at the fifth- and eighth-grade levels, it does come with a price tag.
“It all ties in (to the budget),” said Benigni, who explained it costs $1,500 to train the one teacher in the new Next Generation Science standards. “It’s not a mandate but if we don’t fund and teach it then students won’t meet the standards and it will reflect poorly on the district’s scores.”
Benigni added the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM), program will be added to the elementary school level, as structural and behavioral interventionists to help students who may be struggling with curriculum are added throughout the district. But it’s hard to devote staff to such things with tight funds, Benigni said.
On a macro level, Benigni noted the possible redistricting of the elementary schools as a big discussion point for the year. The school board is expected to review at a January meeting formal proposals on a study to possibly reconfigure the three elementary schools as a way to save funds. Enrollment at one school is around 200 and is around 500 at the other two.
Charging students to play athletics is also a concern. At an October 2016 school board meeting, a parent of a hockey team player said, in opposition to the idea, he has paid nearly $1,500 a year for his son to play on the co-op team with Newington, Cromwell and Manchester since it began in 2010. He said the cost forced others not to play.
Charles Paullin can be reached at 860-801-5074 or firstname.lastname@example.org.