After about two hours of community input, deliberations and two failed amendments, the Legislative Council voted 9-3 to further reduce the school district’s budget request by $300,000. If approved at a planned third round referendum June 4, that would drop requested Board of Education increase to 3.93 percent
Voters already passed the municipal budget request in a split May 14 referendum. Upon approval, the district budget would stand at $71,045,304.
Prior to this week’s reduction, the district budget increase stood at 4.37 percent. If voters support the latest proposal, it would deliver a total budget increase of 3.58 percent, and a 2013-14 tax rate of 33.32 mills.
A mill represents one dollar in taxation for every $1,000 in taxable property.
The meeting began with several residents requesting the council act to reduce the district’s request in consideration of the 52-vote margin of failure in the second round referendum. On May 14, the Board of Education budget received 2,355 Yes votes versus 2,407 who voted against the measure.
Prior to deliberations, Acting Superintendent John Reed told the council he believes the school district is vulnerable this year, especially since much of the energy and attention that could have been devoted to better promoting the district’s requested increase was diverted primarily to issues related to the 12/14 tragedy.
Dr Reed reiterated that in recent years, the district’s average increase has been “less than nine-tenths of one percent.”
He said some community members may also be under the impression that the district was sitting on a “pot of gold” in donations in the wake of the Sandy Hook School shootings. But he explained to the council that the district currently has only $28,000 in donations at its discretion.
The superintendent also promised the council that if anticipated grants did not materialize he would be back before them requesting additional funds to cover critical district expenses. Dr Reed acknowledged that he doesn’t “know all the challenges” that the district, its staff, and students will face in the coming years.
“I hope everyone embraces what we understand has happened to the childhood of hundreds and hundreds of children in our school system,” he said, adding that while the district staff has kept it mostly out of public view, they are still suffering greatly as well.
Board of Education Chairman Debbie Leidlein echoed Dr Reeds comments.
“We don’t know what’s down the road, and these added reductions make our job even harder,” she said, urging every member of the council to initiate advocacy through The Bee and other means to urge residents to get out and vote on June 4.
The initial motion to reduce the district proposal by another $300,000, which carried through in the end, came from Dan Wiedemann. He said it was important to get the school request to under four percent, and the motion would accomplish that.
Colleague Robert Merola said that if the measure was endorsed by voters, the district would still be getting more than two of every three dollars taxpayers are spending on town services in the next fiscal year.
Council member Paul Lundquist countered that $300,000 was “far too strong a step to take.”
First Selectman Pat Llodra asserted that in the past few years, reductions have forced the district to curtail building maintenance and technology programs.
“It takes a lot of courage to turn to the community to support buildings and technology,” she said. “At some point the chickens are going to come home to roost on those issues. If you are asking the Board of Education to be planful, we need to give them the resources.”
Council Vice Chair Mary Ann Jacob, who is a Sandy Hook School staffer, then requested an amendment to reduce the district budget by $150,000. She argued that if a more incremental amount failed at referendum, the council could always come back and affect another reduction to reach the $300,000 amount, versus taking it in a single sweep.
“We, as a community, need to say education is important to us,” Ms Jacob said. “We will have extra [unknown] costs.”
Council Education Committee Chair Kathryn Fetchick said while her own child at Sandy Hook School was expressing concerns about her safety, as an elected official she could not support the $150,000 reduction.
“This year for the first time, I am hearing people saying ‘my taxes are too high.’ They need to see we are making an effort,” Ms Fetchick said.
Mrs Llodra agreed, saying, “Let’s make a modest reduction and sell it to the community.” But even after the amendment, and a subsequent amendment to reduce the proposal by $200,000 failed with Ms Jacob, Mr Lundquist, and Councilman Dan Honan supporting both measures, the remaining nine officials stood firm.