It may have been one of the shortest budget public hearings the Legislative Council has hosted, but its four participants brought the same degree of passion and advocacy for the school district budget proposal as dozens have in previous years.
The four residents, plus Interim Superintendent John Reed, spent a total of about ten minutes Wednesday evening relating their support for the district’s spending plan, and calling for the council to move the budget request to referendum with no further reductions.
Council members will be considering a spending plan that, according to town Finance Director Robert Tait, provides $111,066,204 to cover town and school services, along with the annual cost for debt service on bonding, which is carried in the Board of Selectmen budget.
While the finance board’s endorsed budget request represents a 0.91 percent increase above the current year, because of updated revenue projections, the spending plan will actually require 0.02 percent less in taxation than the current operating budget — and will require a 2014-15 mill rate of 33.31, representing no change, or what is commonly termed “zero increase.”
Mr Tait said those added revenues included $562,000 in grand list growth, $275,000 in additional supplemental motor vehicle taxes, and $152,000 in unanticipated or previously unbudgeted state grants and payments.
If approved as recommended by the finance board, voters will decide on requests by the Board of Selectmen for $39,141,519 (0.3 percent increase), which includes debt service of $10,342,994 (2.8 percent increase), and $71,580,034 (0.75 percent increase) for the school district.
Dr Reed took the microphone first on March 26, saying first that he supports the budget request and then reiterating information that Council Chair Mary Ann Jacob related on March 19 when her panel received the budget proposal from the Board of Finance.
Referring to the council, which is expected to deliberate and possibly approve the budget request April 2, Dr Reed said, “You are not in a position to add money to the budget — I think there can sometimes be confusion about that.
“I think the road ahead to the referendum is a very logical one to me,” the interim superintendent said. “People who believe in the school system, [who] are concerned with moving ahead and tending to business,” he said, should support the budget.
Dr Reed told the council that one of the reasons the budget request is unusually low in terms of percentage increase is because of declining enrollment and the corresponding reduction of teaching positions.
“The savings in those positions has helped us this year to offset what would have been in the past, a more significant increase that perhaps people are used to seeing,” Dr Reed continued. “They might think if it’s not up two or three percent, then what’s wrong. But I don’t think anything is wrong — the certified positions we reduced are appropriate and we’ll be able to meet the [district’s] needs in an appropriate fashion.”
Backing School Budget
Lynn Edwards then came to the microphone, briefly requesting the budget be moved to voters with no further action. She said, however, that requested funds that were reduced by the Board of Education to try and meet a zero percent increase request by the Board of Finance early-on in the budget formulation process “was not in the best interest of the district.”
“I believe this budget is too low and that it should have been approved without changes by the BOE, but I realize our charter does not permit you to add those funds back now,” Ms Edwards said.
Karen Holden was next, thanking Dr Reed and school officials for “putting out a budget that is conservative and responsible while still maintaining the integrity of the education being provided to my children are all the children in Newtown.”
Ms Holden also thanked the Board of Finance for “recognizing this is a good budget.”
Denise Tramposch appeared representing all the town PTAs and read a brief statement also supporting the school budget request as proposed.
“We believe this budget, while not moving our school district forward in any substantive way, is a frugal, practical and fair budget,” she stated, recognizing that Dr Reed and the school board paid attention to enrollment changes and potential changes in grant funding and was able to present a budget without an increase.
Laura Terry was the final speaker at the hearing, and reiterated the calls to move the budget to referendum unchanged. Ms Terry also asserted that she and her husband are supportive of having armed security officers in the local schools, and support the school security officer model the town will adopt in the coming year.
Apathy Or Trust?
Following the brief hearing, Ms Jacob told The Newtown Bee that turnout at the council’s hearing this week mirrored what she described as a lighter than average turnout by the public during previous deliberations by other elected boards.
“Some may call it apathy, but I like to think it’s about trust,” Ms Jacob said. “I just worry that the lack of public engagement could translate into low turnout at the [referendum] polls. So once we move this proposal to taxpayers, we have to focus on getting them out to vote.”
Prior to sending the budget request to the council, the finance board added $279,380 to the selectmen’s budget request to accommodate the hiring of school security officers (SSOs) — specially trained, retired Connecticut police officers who will be paid hourly and draw no health benefits from the town.
Those SSOs will provide armed protection at all of Newtown’s schools beginning this fall. The approved expenditure is offset by a corresponding grant so it will have no effect on taxation, Mr Tait explained.
Finance officials also took the recommendation of volunteers overseeing the town’s self-insured employee health care program, adding $400,000 to infuse the plan’s fund balance and cushion against expected rate and claims increases next fiscal year.
As expected, the finance board recommended adding $150,000 to a program providing senior tax relief, increasing the fund from $1.5 million to $1.65 million. The Legislative Council’s Ordinance Committee has already started working on how it will recommend indexing or allocating portions of that fund to applicants based on ranges of household earnings.