NEWINGTON - As the Board of Education grapples with the possibility of less funding this coming year, school officials are trying to compromise with Town Council over the tentative 0.3 percent increase in its 2017-18 budget.
Their most recent proposal to realign funding without raising the tax rate faced rejection from the council, which defends the schools’ low allotment by a $1.2 million health benefit refund to supplement funding.
Even with this refund Town Manager Tanya Lane proposed a 2 percent increase to the schools, echoing the Superintendent’s bare-minimum recommendation to preserve existing jobs and programs. This was cut by the council’s Republican majority, leaving BOE members scrambling to prevent what they say could be a significant blow to the district.
“It would make things very, very difficult and definitely impact people and programs,” Board Chairwoman Nancy Petronio said Wednesday. “Everybody’s beating on us to do more with less but that can only go so far. If you keep funding us at this level and we have a hole in our budget … it’s definitely going to take a toll on the district.”
Class sizes are already at their limits, she pointed out, and inadequate funding last year eliminated the schools’ gifted program, stalled world language at the middle schools and resulted in several layoffs.
Using non-lapsing funds like the health benefits credit to fund employee salaries is careless and could lead to more drastic cuts, according to Petronio.
“We don’t know if that money will be available next year so we should use it for supplies, not people,” she said. “That’s not responsible budgeting.”
A board proposal to purchase the former St. Mary School building has been discussed by both elected bodies behind closed doors since late March. With the help of Lane, school officials came up with a plan to fund the purchase without raising taxes. Their hopes were to use the building as swing space during the renovation to Newington Town Hall and potentially down the road, as school district offices.
The council went into executive session last week to consider the issue, determining it did not have enough time or knowledge to make an informed decision before adopting the budget on April 18.
In a letter to Petronio Mayor Roy Zartarian wrote, “The budget upon which the council will act is that presented at the public hearing on April 4. The council will continue to explore opportunities related to this matter as they evolve.”
Neither body was willing to share much more about the offer, since it had been made in executive session.
“We had far too many questions about the possible acquisition to be comfortable in agreeing to it, but that doesn’t mean we’ve completely shut the door on the idea,” the mayor said this week. “We’ll continue to explore the opportunities as they continue to turn up.”
After learning of this decision, BOE members began hashing out another proposal, which they expect to bring to the council before next Tuesday, when it is expected to finalize its budget.
Although the school district can realign its own budget allotment to specific areas, the council designates money to particular building projects in its capital improvements fund. BOE members have identified one CIP item they say can be delayed this year, so that its $1 million price tag can be transferred to the schools’ operating budget to fill their funding hole.
That would be the reconfiguration of a wing inside John Wallace Middle School. Funding for phase two of this project is slated in CIP, but Petronio said phase one still has yet to begin.
“That money is sitting there idle,” she explained. “How can we start phase two if we’re not even at phase one yet?”
She remained hopeful this week that councilors would accept this final compromise to lessen the chances of any school layoffs.
“Can you please give us that money in our operating budget to help us make payroll?” Petronio pleaded. “It makes perfect sense. It doesn’t raise the mill rate and it makes better use of the funds.”
Citizens will have an opportunity to share their thoughts with the council next Tuesday, April 18 during the public participation portion of the meeting, before members vote on the budget.
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.