Danbury school, city officials set to spar over budget proposal
DANBURY — A budget battle is brewing between public school leaders and City Hall over the district’s proposed $7 million budget increase for the coming year.
School board members argue that the 5.5 percent bump requested is the minimum amount necessary to maintain status quo at local schools amid repeated state funding cuts — let alone improve or expand services for students in the fastest-growing district in the state.
But Mayor Mark Boughton has already called the budget a “nonstarter” before it has landed on his desk.
“There’s no way we can give them $7 million more,” Boughton said last week. “It’s just not going to happen. That would mean a mill rate increase of almost two mills to our taxpayers, and we have to balance that with what the taxpayers can afford.”
This annual budget back-and-forth has become a routine exercise over the past decade -- the district typically proposes a $5 to $7 million increase to help handle booming enrollment, only to receive one-third or half of its request from the City Council, which has final approval over the city and district budgets.
Last year the district asked for a $5.7 million increase and ultimately received an extra $2.2 million for the current budget.
But school officials suggest they are considering taking a stand this year to break that cycle. The board will vote to officially to recommend the budget proposal to Boughton on Wednesday night.
“The fat’s gone, the muscle’s gone, we’re grinding on bone now,” school board chairman Pat Johnston said last week.
School board members have floated the idea that the board and council hold a joint workshop for administrators to make their case for the increases. Parent-teacher organization participants also want to mobilize to support the budget request, Superintendent Sal Pascarella said.
Any schools budget less than the requested increases would drastically affect the quality of education in Danbury, school board member Richard Jannelli said.
The workshop “may have an impact or at least it will open their eyes. If they make that decision (against the increases), they’re going to know full well they own the problem,” he said.
The proposed increases would push the school district budget just over $135 million if approved in full, and will cover almost $3.2 million in planned raises for teachers and staff and the creation of another two dozen staff positions.
Only $850,000 of the total $7 million is directly attributable to the expansion of Danbury High, already the state’s largest, including five teachers, two special education teachers and three custodians, according to the proposed budget.
The remainder of the increases are simply to restore state cuts or keep up with enrollment, not to expand services, administrators said.
Even if the city granted the entire increase, Danbury schools would still rank last in per-pupil-spending among all 169 cities and towns in Connecticut, they added.
“Being last on that damn list shows folks we are not squandering money away, we’re using every dime as best we can,” Pascarella said. “You’re growing and resources are going down. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out.”
Boughton and the City Council are sympathetic, but said they cannot cover the state’s responsibilities, Boughton said.
“That can be the fault of the state, but we can’t make up the difference,” he said. “There’s no pile of money under somebody’s desk.”
There could be some room in the city budget for a much smaller increase for the schools, but Boughton will not have a detailed plan until he presents the city budget proposal in April, he said.
“We have 20 less employees in city government over the last two years,” Boughton said. “There’s very little effort on the school board’s part to reduce staff or become more efficient at what they do.
“Its a little frustrating for us,” he continued. “I understand the pickle they’re in with increasing enrollment, and we’ll continue to lobby the legislature, but every time the state cuts a grant or doesn’t fund a mandate, the city can’t pick up the tab.”
Board members Fred Karrat and Farley Santos share the frustration. They have suggested the current budget request already is too conservative and could be even higher.
“I want a $10 million increase,” Karrat said last week. “That’s the only reason I would vote against this budget, because I want more. I think we’ve been asking for too little over all these years. We shouldn’t be putting forward a budget that asks for status quo.
“I think we’re doing a disservice to our students by putting together a bare-bones budget, which is the situation we’ve been pushed into. At some point we need to say enough is enough and I don’t think that’s an exercise in futility, I think it’s advocating for our students.”