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Council Approves Board Of Education Budget Without Cuts On Split Vote



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Following three different proposed budget amendments and three separate votes, the Legislative Council approved the Board of Education’s recommended budget at a meeting on March 27.

Following the Board of Finance’s review in February, the bottom line for the Board of Education went to $88,817,373, a $3,747,722 or 4.4% increase over last year. The Board of Education had approved $89,826,756, a $4,747,105 or 5.56% increase. The municipal budget was approved by the BOF without cuts to its bottom line of $48,834,506, a $1,308,366 or 2.75 percent spending increase.

The overall budget currently stands at $137,651,879, a $5,056,088 or 3.7% spending increase. The mill rate is currently proposed to increase from 26.24 to 27.24, a 1 mill or 3.82% tax increase.

These are the final numbers that will go to voters at a Tuesday, April 23, referendum. While turnout has historically been low, Councilman Chris Gardner noted that was the time that voters can weigh in on the budget to let the town know if it is too high or too low.

In 2023, Newtown saw increased participation at its April budget vote with a turnout of approximately 8.8 percent, the first year of increased participation after years of waning participation, especially following the COVID pandemic. In 2022, participation was only 7.7 percent; in 2021, the turnout was 8.98 percent; in 2020, there was no budget referendum due to the pandemic; in 2019, turnout was 17 percent; in 2018, turnout was 15.7 percent; and in 2017, turnout was 19.9 percent.

While a single amendment was proposed to reduce a contingency line item for the Newtown Health District by $10,000, which was not approved into the budget as First Selectman Jeff Capeci noted that the health district is a regional organization that the town cannot cut, similar to the Lake Authorities, the council did take square aim at the BOE budget, with Republican Derek Pisani proposing a cut from the 4.4% proposed spending increase to an increase of 2.75%. This would have cut $1,408,307 from the increase approved by the Board of Finance.

Much of the two hour meeting was discussion of the school budget and wrangling between members over what the final numbers should look like.

While that proposal was seconded by Republican Ben Ruben, it never came to a vote. Pisani said he arrived at it by looking at analytics of the school system’s performance over 20 years compared to budgets, from which he said that there is “no correlation” between higher spending and academic success. He said the budget increased from $49 million in 2000 to $85 million in 2023, while test scores went from the “top 7% to a 64.9% failing grade.”

“There’s an inverted correlation,” said Pisani. “It won’t take money, but leadership to change the trend.”

Pisani and Ruben both expressed the need for sensitivity to the town’s less financially comfortable residents, who are struggling with higher utility costs, inflation, and home costs.

Pisani also noted that he had a document with roughly 400 homeowners who are currently struggling to catch up on their current property taxes.

When asked about the effects of a $1.4 million reduction to the asked for increase, Superintendent Chris Melillo said that “spit balling” it could mean from 10 to 13 positions, some of which would likely be teachers. Melillo noted that most of the increase came from insurance, contractual wage increases, and other inflation-induced rises in costs.

Democratic councilmen also noted that when at the Board of Finance level, the BOE budget was approved after members “could not see anywhere else to cut.”

Council Vice-Chairman Jordana Bloom said that “leadership was just as important as money,” but the school system has “real problems” and those “problems need money to solve.”

Republican Jennifer Nicoletti said that all the councilmen wanted better education, but the current budgets were “on an unsustainable trajectory.” She also noted that the council was talking about “cutting the budget,” but she said the council was “not cutting, but reducing the increase.”

“We’re trying to give an increase taxpayers can support,” said Nicoletti.

Republican John Zachos said that many residents are “living paycheck to paycheck” or “dipping into retirement savings,” but that the current budget increase was “greater than inflation.”

Democratic Councilman Laura Miller said the average cost per home would be $400 to $500.

“I recommend we not cut the budget, but take the advice of the professionals who came before us,” said Miller. “It costs money to get results.”

Gardner said he had heard from many residents, some who said they could not afford an increase to those who support the original BOE proposal before the BOF reduced it, and said the decision was “real hard for me.” Gardner suggested that he would like to see a compromise number, but felt that any number that met in the middle would not pass. In the end, he was right.

Republican Tom Long suggested the first compromise — a $900,000 reduction that would make the proposed budget $87,917,373, a 3.34% increase. After some discussion, that amendment failed on a 6-6 tie, with all five Republicans joined by Miller voting for, and the remaining six Democrats voting against.

A second attempt suggested by Gardner, a $450,000 reduction that would make the proposed budget $88,367,373, a 3.73% increase, was defeated 9-3, with only Gardner, Miller, and Long voting in the affirmative.

The vote then went back to the original motion, which was the proposed budget as approved by the Board of Finance. That budget passed along party lines, with the seven Democrats voting for, and the five Republicans voting against.

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

Comments are open. Be civil.
  1. bw.reloconsult@snet.net says:

    The BOE budget was created from the bottom up analysed in detail by The Board of Education, and reduced. It then went to the Board of Fiancé and was reviewed in detail. The LC members who were against the budget didn’t do the type of review the BOF did, they just wanted to cut the budget, a common theme of the minority on the LC. Great school just don’t happen, they are created by strong leadership ands support of the community. Real estate values jumped by over 20% the last two years, largely due to the strength of our school. Lets vote yes and move on to managing the school system for even greater results.

    1. qstorm says:

      Sarcasm, right? The ‘escape from NY’ inflated real estate values.

  2. qstorm says:

    Rubber stamp. The ‘professionals’ covering their own salaries and benefits while student results continue to diminish. But the kids get great books in the library!!!

  3. bw.reloconsult@snet.net says:

    It would be nice if those who post use their own names for transparency.

  4. rodneymunos says:

    $2.65 million per every week? That is insane amount of money for population of less than 30k people! Newtown needs to stop this and cut the budget! Vote NO!

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