Expected state funding cuts put New Milford officials at odds
NEW MILFORD — Just days after cutting the schools’ budget request by $1 million, the Town Council is looking at how to reimburse the schools if the state comes through with more money than anticipated.
New Milford expects to receive about $445,000 less in education cost sharing grants and about $174,000 less in state money for the teacher retirement contributions, based on Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed budget.
The Town Council is looking at creating a memorandum of understanding that would pass any of that money to the schools if the state’s cuts aren’t as drastic as expected.
However, school board members in the audience at Monday’s council meeting were uncertain that would be allowed since the money isn’t included in the budget as it stands now. The memorandum also hasn’t been reviewed by the town attorney.
The agreement could also become moot if the finance board decides to add money back to the school budget before it goes to voters.
The projected state cuts were the main reason given by town council members for cuts they made to the schools’ budget request. In his initial proposal to the council, Mayor Pete Bass had already cut the schools’ request by nearly $249,000 also.
This translates to about $1 million less than what the schools asked for, but is still 1 percent more than the current budget.
The Town Council adopted a $102.6 million budget last week, which includes $63.6 million for the schools and nearly $39 million for the town. It passed 6-2 with councilmen Walter Bayer and Peter Mullen opposing because they wanted to give the schools more money. Councilman Doug Skelly was absent.
The memorandum discussion followed pleas from school board members and parents to restore the money to what the school board approved and let the voters decide.
Several of the speakers said the 1 percent more in funding doesn’t cover the contractual increases for salaries and utilities. They said teachers will have to be cut, which means that it will affect programs and increase class sizes.
“It means our students will be hit again,” said Megan Byrd, a parent.
Tammy McInerney, the school board’s vice chairwoman, said the board members worked collaboratively to bring the budget to the town and already made significant cuts to the superintendent’s request.
The school board cut $423,000, including removing capital projects and an assistant principal at Sarah Noble Intermediate School.
“I’m very disappointed and extremely discouraged,” McInerney said of the Town Council cut. “I really, truly thought in my heart you guys would do the right thing.”
Several people noted the schools helped the town last fiscal year after the state cut more than $2.2 million in funding, most of which was for education cost sharing. To close that gap, school and town officials didn’t fill vacancies, froze spending and, in the town’s case, laid off people.
“Town Council came to the Board of Education last year and asked us to help you and in return you drastically cut our budget,” said school board member Joseph Failla. “It’s tragic. Does the council want to be known as not supporting education?”
Bass said the town had skin in the game and covered the bulk of that deficit. School and town officials approved using $1.5 million of the previous year’s surplus. The town covered $700,000 in its budget and the schools covered $450,000.
He said the town and schools are looking at more than $107.1 million in capital projects over the next five years in addition to regular operating costs and they need to start budgeting differently.
“We have to do things in a different way because the state isn’t going to help us anymore,” Bass said. “You can see that in the cuts they give us each year. We have to work together more than ever.”