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$460,000 school cut?

March 12, 2019

RIDGEFIELD — When the Board of Finance reviews next year’s school budget in the coming days it will have two options to consider — the district’s $98.4 million request or the selectmen’s $97.9 million version.

The Board of Selectmen has offered the finance board $460,000 in suggested cuts to the school district’s proposed spending plan. The selectmen also sent along a $38.3 million budget for town departments — the 0 percent increase they’d been working on.

The board also approved a $4.5 million capital budget and $11.3 million in payments for next year’s debt service on past borrowing.

School board members, however, voted Monday to pass on their full proposed $98.4 million budget — a 3.6 percent increase — to the Board of Finance for review anyway. Superintendent Dr. William Collins told the school board he would seek cuts in the budget to lower the requested increase.

“Like a lot of Connecticut towns, we’re facing a tough budget year, as we have for a number of years,” said BOE Vice-Chairman Doug Silver Monday night. “It would be wise of us to at least start talking about things that we’re considering, where to ask the superintendent ... to start considering as they look for [cuts].

“That’s a change, by the way,” he added, “normally, I think at this point in the process, I would not be advocating for that.”

Finding reductions

At the budget meetings last week, selectman Bob Hebert calculated that the recommended school reduction would bring the projected mill rate increase needed to support next year’s budget down from a 3.14 percent to a 2.79 percent tax hike. That is assuming the finance board makes no adjustments to spending or to revenue of its own.

The finance board’s proposed 2019-20 budget package will then go to voters in May at the annual town meeting and the budget referendum.

The selectmen also made reductions to the town budget — including a reorganization that meant the loss of some job positions, as well as some incentivized retirements — with savings found in the highway department, assessor’s office, parks and recreation department, town engineer’s office, building department, mapping department, tax collector’s office, and in administrative positions in the police department and fire department, according to First Selectman Rudy Marconi.

“We’re cutting to the bone,” Hebert said. So, the schools should also do some cutting, he said.

“In a $98 million budget with an about $3.5 million increase,” he said of the school board’s request, “...I just can’t believe they can’t find some efficiencies to help us out.”

School board chairwoman Margaret Stamatis said officials were aware of the selectmen’s aggressive effort to reduce the town departments’ budget, and had undertaken similar efforts on the school side to reduce their budget increase from initial requests approaching 6 percent to the 3.6 percent increase proposal that was passed on to the selectmen and finance board.

“Like the town, we did eliminate positions [a full team at East Ridge Middle School],” she said. “We also had a successful negotiation with the teachers’ bargaining unit this fall that included a plan design change for the teachers’ health benefits that included managed care type elements designed to hold down the growth in health insurance premium costs for the district.”

Outside factors

An uncontrollable factor the selectmen discussed as underlying their recommendation for a school cut was the still-developing plan in Hartford to save the state money by having towns share in the cost of teacher retirement pensions.

“The teacher retirement seems to be alive — not a lot of opposition,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi, who’d been to Hartford to testify on various bills.

The selectmen expressed concern that some potentially sizable teacher pension costs will likely be passed down from the state to the towns. They also questioned the potential impact of Gov. Ned Lamont’s idea to have the state claim automobile taxes that currently go to towns.

“For us, it would be approximately $8.1 million,” Marconi said. “His proposal is the state would collect it, and redistribute it according to need. We all know where that leaves us.”

The finance board has a public hearing on the budget set for Monday, March 25, with work sessions scheduled March 26, 27 and 28. The final session will focus on the school budget.