The proposed budget for the region, which oversees schools in Beacon Falls and Prospect, stands at $38.85 million, an increase of roughly $1.56 million or 4.17 percent. The proposal would increase net education costs for Beacon Falls by about $570,000, or 6 percent, and Prospect’s costs by roughly $952,000 or 6.2 percent.
“We recognize with this budget these are challenging times but there are ongoing needs and we know that there are limited resources,” interim Superintendent of Schools Jacqueline Jacoby said as she presented the budget at the start of the hearing.
The proposed increase is driven by fixed costs. Tuition for students who attend magnet schools and special education students who are out-placed to schools for services the district can’t provide is set to increase $656,640. Three additional out-placed special education students moved into the district this school year, according to a budget overview.
Staff wages are going up $217,872. Wages for certified teachers are increasing by 2.99 percent and non-certified position will get a 2.5 percent increase next school year under contractual agreements. Wages for both groups were kept flat this school year and according to officials the increase in wages is offset by proposed staff changes.
Health insurance and debt service costs are set to increase $306,802 and $266,607 respectively. The remaining significant increases came in electricity costs, $132,689, and bus transportation, $74,534.
Jacoby said there is very little discretionary money in the budget.
“This is a people business and paying people is what we have to do. Our increases were really driven by things we had very little control over,” she said.
The public hearing was sparsely attended. Most of the roughly 30 people who sat in the auditorium at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls were Region 16 staff. Only two people addressed the board during the hearing — Prospect Mayor Robert Chatfield and Beacon Falls First Selectman Gerard Smith.
Both town officials asked the board to go back over the budget and make more cuts.
“I ask maybe go back, I know you’ve had several workshops, go back with an eraser and just take another look to see if there’s something else you could do,” Chatfield said.
Smith asked board members to look at some of the deeper, hard cuts to see what they can do. He said Beacon Falls’ town budget hasn’t been approved yet for a public hearing, but residents are already saying it’s too high and the proposed increase is less than the school board’s proposal.
“The only way you’re going to make a difference is to go to personnel, programs and the hard, hard, hard cuts,” Smith said.
After the hearing closed, the board discussed further cuts and ultimately eliminated two intervention specialists and a teaching position at Long River Middle School in Prospect to reach the $38.85 million figure.
The board already voted to cut three intervention specialists the week before the hearing. The cut Wednesday night brings the total intervention specialists cut to five — four at the elementary schools and one at Long River. Two of the interventionists are expected to fill open positions within the district next school year.
Jacoby said nobody in the district wanted to reduce staff, but administrators feel the district can meet the needs of the students without the specialists.
Board Chair Priscilla Cretella said the cut is a hard one to make, but if the district can still serve the needs of the children it’s a necessary step to take.
“It’s one of the unfortunate cuts that we need to make when we’re dealing with this type of budget,” she said.
The middle school teaching position cut is expected to be made through attrition, but the district had not officially received a retirement notice from the teacher expected to retire, Jacoby said.
The cuts approved this week are the latest staff cuts made by the board.
The board had already cut a third-grade teaching position at Laurel Ledge Elementary School in Beacon Falls due to decreased enrollment. The third-grade teacher is retiring and the position won’t be filled. The board had also decided to not fill a full-time position in special education and reduced a half position in art and a half position in consumer science both at Woodland. Two cafeteria aide positions have also been eliminated. The cut in cafeteria aides will result in layoffs.
The board will hold a special meeting this coming Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Woodland Regional High School to review further reductions and finalize its budget proposal. Once the budget proposal is finalized, it will go to a district meeting May 6 at Long River Middle School at 7 p.m. for a paper ballot vote.
Whether to send the budget to a referendum or hold a paper ballot vote was debated at Wednesday night’s meeting.
Board member Robin Wright said the cost difference between holding a referendum and a paper ballot is significant, particularly when the board is looking at cuts to reduce the budget increase.
A referendum is estimated to cost $6,000 while a paper ballot vote is estimated at $1,500, according to Business Manager Pamela Mangini.
Board member Robert Hiscox argued that given the size of the budget increase a referendum should be held.
Board member Sheryl Feducia said everyone who wants to vote might not be able to make the town meeting, but a referendum offers them all day to vote.
The board approved holding a paper ballot vote with Hiscox and Feducia voting against it. Board members Donna Cullen and William Fredericks were not present.
A referendum on the budget can still be forced if residents petition to do so.