A growing number of officials believe that helping residents better understand the relationship between declining student enrollment and the amount school leaders will ask taxpayers to underwrite next year could help pass the annual budget referendum sooner.
Providing additional evidence to taxpayers that town and district leaders are working collaboratively, and with mutual support for each other’s spending proposals, could also go far toward propelling a first-round budget vote to passage, some officials believe.
These were early stage issues emerging following a multiboard budget orientation session held with members of the Legislative Council, and the Boards of Education, Selectmen and Finance, which occurred during the council’s final meeting of the year December 18.
“We owe it to the taxpayers to work together as much as possible,” said Council Chair Mary Ann Jacob.
Interim Superintendent John Reed told the gathered officials that he has until mid-January to present the school board with a budget proposal, and that he was still working on it as the officials all sat down for the preliminary budget orientation.
Dr Reed reiterated concerns about added security costs that he had previously noted during budget and capital planning discussions at other board meeting in recent weeks.
“We may have to look at security [costs] independent of the budget,” Dr. Reed said. “If it falls on the board of education [to finance], we hope to look at creative ways so that cost doesn’t impact books and instruction.”
Dr Reed said he thought is was important for taxpayers to know that more than $4.2 million had already come to the district between grants and private sources to cover extraneous costs stemming from the 12/14 tragedy.
“We haven’t gone to the taxpayers,” he said, “there is a lot of good news here.”
Dr Reed said he was optimistic that if taxpayers understood the particulars of next year’s budget request, they would support it. He said that taxpayers should know that he has no intention on filling vacant school staff positions “just because they are in the budget,” and responded to one council member’s query about whether he has set a spending cap by saying his goal was to simply present an “intelligent budget.”
Councilman Dan Amaral said his constituents are already calling for a zero budget increase, and asked that any line item increase over the current year be fully explained in the district’s budget book, which is distributed to all elected officials involved in the budget development process.
Dr Reed responded saying, “I don’t think you’ll see a lot of lines going up, and the ones that do will be easy to explain.”
Early Retirement Option?
Ms Jacob asked if the district was considering offering an early retirement option for veteran staff, and Dr Reed said that would be up to the school board. He added that he does not support early retirement incentives.
The interim superintendent also mentioned to officials at the budget orientation that adopting a new school transportation provider has proven to “exceed the advertised savings.”
Turning attention to the pending municipal budget request, First Selectman Pat Llodra told officials she was aiming at introducing no new programs, but she also has a goal to craft a budget that will not further reduce municipal services.
She did indicate that officials might see a request for additional administrative support in her office line next year, and that the coming year could provide an opportunity to see a significant cost reduction by participating in a centralized emergency dispatch cooperative, versus continuing to pay for in-town personnel, facilities, and technology.
She pointed out to the officials gathered that currently the State of Texas has four emergency dispatch centers, while Connecticut has 138.
Mrs Llodra also seemed to side with Dr Reed regarding school security funding, urging officials to consider presenting a “breakout budget containing separate expenses for services sought.”
“It’s a cost center that can stand on its own, versus being woven into both the town and school budgets,” Mrs Llodra said. “If we build the budget [including] these added resources it will drive it up and it will be defeated. It doesn’t make sense to do that.”
Weighing in on behalf of the finance board, Chairman John Kortze read from a prepared statement, and adding his voice of support to adopt a series of multiboard budget planning sessions as a formalized annual practice.
Speaking to his board’s request to fully understand school security implications, Mr Kortze said, “Last year the Board of Finance was tasked with recommending an allocation for security not knowing exactly what the future would hold. We’ve had a year to explore and discuss the various options and would expect that a specific and collective recommendation would be forthcoming and is certainly expected by the public.”
He said finance board members also support breaking out operating budgets separately from the security. “We would also expect an illustration on the various funding sources and that the plan moving forward be itemized as well.”
‘Pay As You Go’
Mr Kortze also suggested the school board seriously explore and discuss the concept of saving for particular expenses year over year and adopting a “pay as you go” approach to budgeting as it is permitted by recent state action in CT Senate Bill 376, Public Act 10-108 Section 32.
“The municipal side of the budget has adopted this practice and has proven very beneficial to funding and planning for larger expenses,” Mr Kortze stated. “[Finance board members] have held off from implementing such a practice due to the absence of that input. This would allow the BOE to establish a contingency fund and plan for certain expenses.”
The finance board also encouraged the school board to discuss and collaborate with other boards regarding the consolidation of noneducational services that exists in both the town and district operations.
“The newly passed Public Act 13-60 which became effective 10/1/13 requires the Board of Finance and Board of Selectmen to make recommendations to the [school board] regarding how the [school board] can consolidate noneducational services to realize financial efficiencies,” Mr Kortze said.
He also mentioned correspondence with school board Chair Debbie Leidlein he initiated last April concerning “the need to have a public dialogue regarding increasing costs and decreasing enrollment.”
“The council chair at the time responded and concurred. That meeting did not materialize and the reason expressed was that the district was not ready or did not want to do an enrollment study at that time,” Mr Kortze said. “To be clear, an enrollment study was not requested at that time and it is our belief that an enrollment study isn’t necessary to recognize the trend.”
Mr Kortze said public dialog on the subject needed to occur to help “educate the [budget] voter, in an open and public fashion, with the goal of educating them as to the reasons for the additional funding needs with the backdrop of declining enrollment was the focus of the request. More importantly, it would have been an opportunity for the BOE to articulate the reasons for the need or the plan to address the trend.”
To that end, the finance board has requested an illustration of current enrollment in the district as well as the available classrooms by grade.
“We believe the data will speak for itself and will guide us in our recommendations to the council,” he stated, adding, “We would request an understanding from the Boards of Selectmen and Education as to the timeline and cost for a municipal space needs study to include the schools as well as the timeline for an enrollment study in the upcoming budget.”
He said finance officials expect to quickly refer to the council a framework of possibilities and ideas surrounding the concept of possible additional senior tax relief.
“We encourage the council, with haste, to take the appropriate steps to vet all the possible options and consider whether or not additional tax relief for seniors is appropriate,” Mr Kortze said.
Lastly, he said, the finance board recommends that town and school officials present a budget for the 2014-2015 budget year that represents a flat or zero increase from the previous year.
“There are a multitude of reasons for this request to include the enrollment trend and the recent reveal to name a few,” he said. “We believe that we, as elected officials, have an opportunity to demonstrate to the public that we are addressing the various trends and issues in town. “