The Legislative Council, expressing concern at how difficult this year is for many residents, voted on April 6 to cut the Board of Education’s budget request by $300,000. The council also made minor cuts and changes to several Board of Selectmen budget lines before approving the final spending proposals that will go to voters in the April 26 referendum.
Deliberations on the proposed school budget began with a subcommittee recommendation to cut $557,000, a figure equivalent to the cost of new hires and a number of capital items that Councilman Phil Carroll believed could wait. Carroll noted that the increase in the BOE’s proposed budget, even excluding contractual pay and benefit increases, was $1 million more than the increase in the prior year, and the full increase would approximately double the increase in the prior year’s budget.
After deliberation and an accepted amendment, Carroll’s application was reduced by $300,000 instead of $557,000.
The council also voted to cut the Lake Authorities line item by $11,157 and the library budget by $24,531.
Voters are being asked to review a total budget request for 2022-23 totaling $129,026,038, an increase of 4.7% or $5,806,484 from the current year’s budget of $123,219,554.
The BOS proposal is $46,891,399, an increase of 7.7% or $3,369,543 over the current budget of $43,521,856. The BOE’s proposed budget following the Council-approved cut is $82,134,639, an increase of 3.1% or $2,436,941 over the 2021-22 budget of $79,697,698.
Note that the BOS budget includes debt service for all borrowings including binding for school district projects.
If both budget requests are approved on April 26, the mill rate would rise from 34.65 to 34.67, a tax increase of 0.02 million, or 0.07% — less than a tenth of a percent. A mill represents one dollar for every $1,000 of taxable property.
Referendum polls in the middle school gymnasium are open April 26 from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
When discussing the budgets, Councilor Ryan Knapp proposed cutting back on the maritime authorities. He said the $64,982 item in the first selectman’s budget was up 20% year-over-year and suggested leaving the item unchanged at $53,735.
“Last year we also gave them a hefty boost,” Knapp said. “They justified this with additional duties and responsibilities due to COVID and increased maritime traffic.”
Knapp said that while maritime authorities said this year that the increase was for salaries and capital improvements, the authorities also acknowledged they had enough money in their account balance for capital improvements. He also felt that the Council did not have sufficient opportunity to examine the budgets of the maritime authorities.
“We haven’t received the information on this increase that we would need from any other outside agency,” Knapp said.
First Selectman Dan Rosenthal raised concerns about the cut, noting that the agency spans multiple cities and “if we don’t pay, it’s not going to reflect well on us if everyone else does.”
Knapp said the city pays a large chunk of the maritime authorities’ budget. Rosenthal countered that this was because Newtown had a large front to Lake Lillinoah and Lake Zoar.
Knapp said the city is accepting the increases each year because the council deems it necessary.
“Every year it’s like, ‘We have to do it, we have to do it,’ and the budget goes up and up,” said Knapp, who said he didn’t know if an outside agency had “the ability to commit us to spend money.” “
Rosenthal said he would review the agency’s statutes.
Council member Chris Gardner agreed that a 20% increase was “outrageous” but said the council “missed the boat on this issue” and should have addressed it sooner.
“This is the eleventh hour and we don’t know our liabilities,” Gardner said. “Are we making a commitment?”
Councilor Matt Mihalcik proposed an 8% budget increase to keep the increase in line with current inflation, but his proposal fell 4-8; Knapp, Chris Gardner, Angela Curi, Lisa Kessler, William DeRosa, Michelle Embree Ku, and Dan Honan voted against. The motion to put the line item on no raise passed 7-5; Chris Gardner, Tom Long, Mihalcik, Ku and Honan voted against.
Reduction of the library
Next, Knapp planned to cut the library to $1,381,469, meaning it didn’t increase the previous year’s budget. Knapp said it stemmed from talks about the council wanting to set a policy on outside agencies like the library “demanding increased taxpayer contributions” while they have a sizable balance.
Knapp said the council has asked in the past for the BOE and the Parks & Recreation department to spend less. He also said the library has received “significant paycheck protection funds” from the federal government for pandemic relief, “despite no revenue hiatus from the city.”
“Now is not a good time to ask more of taxpayers,” Knapp said. The motion to cut the library increase passed 8-4, with Mihalcik, Long, Ku and Honan voting against.
Earlier in the evening, Ku filed a motion proposed by the council’s subcommittee on finance and administration to use an additional $100,000 from the city’s fund balance to reduce the city’s debt service.
Knapp said that due to inflation, $100,000 in the fund account may effectively only have the purchasing power of $90,000 next year, and the return on the money in the fund account is low.
Treasury director Bob Tait said the city already has a plan to spend debt service with the fund balance for years to come, including $280,000 for this year — and additional spending this year would mean increasing the position in years to come. The council passed the proposal 7-5, with Curi, Kessler, DeRosa, Long and Carroll voting against.
During the Board of Education budget discussion, BOE Chair Deborah Zukowski said the district is “reviewing every item in the budget.”
“The budget increase is more than we would like, but it reflects the needs of students post-pandemic,” Zukowski said. “We try to diligently consider the impact on the community by reviewing each line item more closely.”
Superintendent Lorrie Rodrigue said that when the administration puts together its budget, it “goes through a thoughtful process” and that it has already made more than $1 million in cuts from administrators’ requests even before the budget is sent to the board of directors Education went.
She said any cuts the BOE would make to cope with a smaller increase in spending almost certainly would not come from new staff, but rather from interventionists, clerical positions and the purchase of new textbooks.
“I can’t take anything from these positions,” said Rodrigue, noting that the positions were junior high school positions to reflect the increasing enrollment at those levels. “We have to go deep into other areas.”
Long said the proposed cut represented less than 1% of the overall budget and that enrollment was down overall, particularly in high school. Long said it was a “difficult time” with inflation at 8% and that people were struggling, particularly those on fixed incomes.
Rodrigue responded that the school system couldn’t shift staff like that and couldn’t just send high school teachers to elementary school.
Suggest a “disconnect”
Ku, a former BOE chairman, said the numbers advertised for new teachers were “all justified” and that new elementary teachers were “needed”. She suggested that there was a “break” between the Council’s consideration of the BOE budget and the consideration of the BOS budget; Note that the council would not consider how an increase relates to the previous year’s BOS budget increase.
Knapp mentioned the bus contract and suggested reducing the overall cut to give schools the opportunity to negotiate a better contract with another transport company. Knapp said the city’s current provider, All-Star Transportation, “frankly failed in its primary responsibility of picking up children and getting them home on time.”
Mihalcik requested that the BOE cut be reduced from $557,195 to $300,000; and it passed 9-3 with Chris Gardner, Honan and Ku voting against. The adjusted budget passed 10-2, with Chris Gardner and Honan voting against.
During the public attendance, parent David Stott said he has three children in the school system and has seen them suffer from learning losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He called it “unfathomable” that the Legislative Council would “remove human capital and hard investment in schools.”
“It’s a sad day when a PTA has to sell t-shirts and raffles to meet a school’s needs,” Stott said. “I am asking you to support the budget recommended by the Superintendent and the Board of Education. They, not you, know best what the schools need.”
Parent Kate O’Grady said standardized test scores “are not as high as they used to be.”
“The students, teachers and parents are working as hard as they can,” O’Grady said, “but there were learning losses.”
She said Republican BOE members discussed how to improve the results.
“To make sure of that, we need the staff,” O’Grady said. “We cannot cut the budget. We need all the money we can get to increase the score.”
Associate editor Jim Taylor can be reached at [email protected].
Legislative Council Member Matt Mihalcik, third from left, makes a point as colleagues Charles Gardner, Chairman Jeff Capeci and Phil Carroll listen during budget deliberations at the Municipal Center April 6.