Plan cuts ECS grant to Beacon Falls, Prospect

REGION 16 — With Region 16’s proposed 2016-17 school budget set for a vote in just over a week’s time, the impact of the spending plan on Beacon Falls and Prospect remains a moving target as the state grapples with closing a projected budget gap.

The Region 16 Board of Education, which oversees schools in Beacon Falls and Prospect, last Wednesday voted to send the proposed $40.53 million budget to a paper ballot vote at a district meeting May 2. The district meeting is at 7 p.m. at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls. A referendum could be forced through a petition.

The proposed $40.53 million budget doesn’t increase spending over the current budget. However, the net education costs for the towns will change; how much largely depends on whether Gov. Dannel Malloy’s proposal to close a projected $900 million state budget deficit for the 2016-17 fiscal year comes to fruition.

“We say we’re at zero, that’s great, but guess what, even if we’re at zero if the revenue changes for the towns they can still have anywhere from a 1 percent to a 4 percent increase in what they have to spend,” Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin said.

The revenue at the center of the discussion was the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant, the main state grant for education funding. Malloy’s proposal, which was announced the day before the board meeting, includes additional cuts of $167,927 and $209,747 in ECS funding to Beacon Falls and Prospect, respectively.

“We’re better off than most towns, I would venture to say, but let me tell you there are going to be some ramifications here,” Yamin told the board. “I’m not saying we operate according to what the dollar is, but we do have a responsibility to prioritize and provide the best education possible.”

These cuts come on top of proposed ECS cuts of $291 and $45,877 to Beacon Falls and Prospect, respectively, Malloy recommended in February. In total, Malloy’s plan calls for cutting $423,842 to Beacon Falls and Prospect combined.

“The Governor’s proposal is just that, it’s a proposal,” Beacon Falls First Selectman Chris Bielik said late last week.

Legislators must still approve a budget plan, and budget discussions continued this week in Hartford.

Bielik said historically the legislature has tried to mitigate the impact on municipalities. He’s hopeful that is the case again this year.

“How much? That remains to be seen,” Bielik said.

When the proposed school budget was presented at a March 30 public hearing the estimated net education costs to Beacon Falls and Prospect were $10.78 million and $17.75 million, respectively. Beacon Falls’ cost was estimated to decrease about $50,000, while Prospect’s cost was estimated to increase nearly $530,000, an increase of about 3 percent. These estimates took into account Malloy’s proposed ECS cuts from February.

If everything stays as it currently stands — school officials have expressed concerns about further cuts and cuts in other revenue sources — the proposed ECS cuts announced last week would be added onto the towns’ net expenses.

School officials are working with the towns in hopes of offsetting any potential revenue losses. Officials cannot change the bottom line of the proposed budget heading into the district meeting, but can adjust revenues.

Yamin met with Beilik and Prospect Mayor Robert Chatfield on Monday to discuss the situation.

In a subsequent interview, Yamin said school officials are reviewing all revenues to collectively work with the towns. He said the board will be receiving some unanticipated and expected revenues that would normally have gone to pay for school expenses. He is planning to use that revenue and increase the “carryover” to the towns.

The school board has traditionally tried to “carry over” funds from each fiscal year that are revenue for the towns to pay for their school expenses. The proposed 2016-17 spending plan has $400,000 budgeted for the “carryover.” Yamin said he wants to get that figure to $700,000. The additional $300,000 would be revenue the towns could use to offset the cuts.

School officials will have a clearer picture on where revenue and the net education costs stand by the district meeting May 2.

The plan to increase the carryover drew support from town leaders.

“[The school officials] are the ones who will have to come up with the additional funds. It will save the regional taxpayers money,” Chatfield said.

As for the proposed school budget, the only issue discussed amongst the board last week was adding world language in the elementary schools. The proposal doesn’t fund a specific plan to do so.

Board member Priscilla Cretella, who voted against sending the budget to the public hearing, has been advocating for adding world language at the elementary schools. She wanted to at least add a program for fifth-graders in the budget.

“I think it’s beneficial for the students,” Cretella said.

Yamin put together a couple of rough proposals, including hiring an instructional aide to teach fifth-graders using Rosetta Stone, an online language program. Yamin added that there is about $20,000 in the budget designated for enrichment programs that could be used to provide some world language lessons in the elementary school.

The board decided against adding anything into the budget.

Board member Nazih Noujaim expressed concerns about adding staff at a time when more cuts may be coming from the state.

Luke Marshall contributed to this article.

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