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Town And School Budgets In ‘Same Boat,’ Says Finance Board Chair



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Driven by revenues that are “not quite what” the town wants, wages and benefits that are increasing, and a static population, the town and school budgets are in “the same boat,” said Board of Finance Chairman Jim Gaston.

The Board of Finance began its review of both the town and school proposed budgets at its February 15 meeting. The municipal budget is currently proposed at $48,834,506, a $1,308,366 or 2.75% spending increase; and the school budget is proposed at $89,826,756, a $4,757,105 or 5.59% increase. The overall bottom line is a combined proposed budget of $138,661,262, a $6,065,471 or 4.3% spending increase. Finance Director Bob Tait has not yet announced the overall tax impact of the proposed budget as of yet.

Major drivers in the school budget are a $1,978,394 increase in salaries, a $995,194 increase in benefits, a $721,700 increase in supplies, a $587,073 increase in purchased property services, a $240,208 increase in other purchased services, and a $148,063 increase for property and equipment.

Salaries are increasing 3.58%, with the teachers union receiving a 1.5% increase and two percent for the top step only, the administrator union receiving a 2.75% wage increase, the custodial and maintenance union receiving a 3% increase, the educational personnel union receiving a three percent increase.

During a presentation to the finance board, Superintendent of Schools Chris Melillo outlined the numerous fiscal challenges facing the schools this year, including rising costs of benefits, contractual wage increases, aging facilities, inflationary pressures, unfunded state mandates, the lingering effects of interrupted learning from the pandemic, and a fiscal cliff.

Melillo said the district is facing challenges in supporting students, including behavioral issues, social emotional development, chronic absenteeism, and the need for mental health support.

As part of that, the district is estimating that its Education Cost Share grant from the state, largely meant to help cover special education costs, will go down by more than $300,000, with last year’s grant being $1,832,349 and this year’s estimated at $1,577,304.

While student population is trending down in the upper grades, it is increasing at kindergarten through fourth grade. The school district is planning on moving around staffing, eliminating one teacher at Sandy Hook School and two teachers at the high school, but adding one teacher at Head O’Meadow, one special education position, and a part time, .15 social worker, as well as dean of students positions at the high school and middle school.

Melillo said the need for a dean of students position is being driven by chronic absenteeism and a rise in “behaviors,” ie, students acting out and breaking rules. The dean of students would deal with discipline and allow the vice-principals, who currently handle behavioral issues, to concentrate on instructional and administrative duties.

This gives an overall increase in positions of 1.15 full-time positions, an increase of $99,680.

For non-certified staff, the budget increases hours for staff at Hawley, Sandy Hook, Middle Gate, and Head O’Meadow schools, at an equivalent of .2 full-time positions at each, and adding a part-time .5 athletic trainer at the high school. Two paraprofessionals would be reduced, equivalent to 1.22 full-time positions, for a total change in non-certified personnel of .08 full-time position equivalent, an increase of $22,099.

“We have a budget that allows us to meet the needs of students,” said Melillo. “We’re not asking for more people, the student population is flat. What we’re seeing is big hikes in areas beyond the control of the district.”

Melillo noted that neighboring school systems had comparable or higher spending increases, with Monroe coming in at seven percent this year, and Trumbull also coming in “around 7%.”

BOE Chairman Alison Plante said the presentation was bringing the Board of Finance “into the problem with us,” as the BOE and school staff already had “many eyes” on the budget but now the BOF had an opportunity to look at it and give additional opinions and come up with different ideas and solutions.

“This budget presents the best thinking of Chris [Melillo], the staff, and the Board of Education,” said Plante. “If [the finance board sees] things we can do differently, we’re very open to that.”

The Board has until March 14 to present its version of the proposed budget to the Legislative Council. It is expected to meet with school staff and Board of Education members again to answer questions on February 26.

'Same Services' Town Budget

Following the Board of Selectmen review of the town budget last month, the selectmen made $22,160 in cuts, including $12,918 from the Parks & Recreation Department since the workers will not be receiving a raise from the town as they already received an increase in the minimum wage; $10,848 from Social Services and $1,605 from Economic and Community Development. This reduced the budget from First Selectman Jeff Capeci’s initial proposed budget of $48,856,666, which would have been a 2.8% spending increase.

Capeci at the BOF meeting said the town budget represents a “same services” budget with no staff increases.

“I didn’t want to make wholesale changes until I had been around a bit longer,” said Capeci.

Capeci said at a January 18 BOS meeting that before his review, the budgets he received from department heads would have been a 6.25% spending increase, “which was a bit high to my regards.”

The Police Department budget has an increase of $484,332 or 6.15%, mainly due to salaries and wages, benefits, and retirement contributions. The department was seeking additional staff but Capeci cut the additional position. The Board of Finance seemed open to the possibility of adding the position back in.

The C.H. Booth Library presented the library budget, which is being increased to $1,475,000, an increase of $173,531 or 13.33%.

The library was facing a spending cliff as it had been cut by $100,000 by the Legislative Council in the 2023-24 budget after having been flat funded since 2021. The library was approved for $1,407,621 in the 2022-23 budget, and was cut to $1,307,621 in the 2023-24 budget. The council requested that the library spend down its $523,882 fund balance, which they did.

The Public Works Department was seeking a $234,149 or 2.61% spending increase.

The 2024-25 proposed fire budget is $1,566,963, a $112,384 or 7.73% increase over the 2023-24 budget of $1,454,674. The budget increase is being driven by “an increase in the length of service awards program contribution and increases in energy accounts.”

Also presenting was Parks & Recreation, which has an increase in its proposed budget of $164,176 or 6.15%, going from $2,669,754 in 2023-24 to $2,833,930 in 2024-25. The increase was largely driven by an increase in wages and benefits.

Seasonal wages went up from $281,531 in 2023-24 to $327,990 in 2024-25, a $46,459 or 16.5% increase. Much of this was driven by increases in the minimum wage, which increased to $15 in 2023 and increased to $15.69 in 2024.

The capital line item went from $25,000 in 2023-24 to $44,000 in 2024-25, a $9,000 or 25.71% increase. Among capital items in the 2024-25 budget are $5,000 for cut-off saws, weed eaters and back pack blowers, $25,000 for a replacement pool vacuum, and $14,000 for a drum mulch head for the mini excavator.


Editor Jim Taylor can be reached at jim@thebee.com.

The Board of Finance recently began its review of the budget, which has an overall 4.3% spending increase from last year.
Comments are open. Be civil.
  1. tomj says:

    It seems like the town and school budgets are not in the same boat but one is in a boat at 2.75% and one is more of a ship at 5.59%.

  2. qstorm says:

    chronic absenteeism and a rise in “behaviors,” in middle school and high school? Where are the parents?

    1. yhwy19 says:

      It seems many are strolling through meadows on commerce road and CHS.
      Perhaps we should take a closer look at rehabbing FH back to its original purpose.

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