Region 16 budget squeaks by at referendum

[wpaudio url=”http://www.mycitizensnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/R16-Referendum.mp3″ text=”Split Decision”]

PROSPECT — The support of Prospect voters was enough to counteract Beacon Falls’ rejection, and a $36.6 million Region 16 school budget passed at referendum Tuesday, 831-722. In Prospect, the tally was 522-389, in favor of the budget; in Beacon Falls, it was 333-309, against.

About 16 percent of registered voters in the district cast ballots.

The budget represents a $506,222, or 1.4 percent, increase over the current budget. Most of the budget’s increases are a result of rising employees’ salaries and insurance benefits. Wages and benefits will cost $24.5 million next fiscal year, a $561,974 increase.

The jump would have been more, if not for a new, three-year teachers’ contract. Though the Board of Education and teachers’ union disagreed about the terms of the contract’s second and third years—an arbitration panel in March ruled in favor of the school board—the two parties agreed teachers will receive neither a general wage nor a step increase in 2010-11.

A voter enters the Prospect Firehouse during Tuesday's Region 16 school budget referendum. Prospect carried the budget to passage, counteracting Beacon Falls' rejection.

A voter enters the Prospect Firehouse during Tuesday's Region 16 school budget referendum. Prospect carried the budget to passage, counteracting Beacon Falls' rejection.

Prospect resident Walt Semrow, 73, said he appreciates teachers’ efforts but voted against the budget because he believes the school system is top-heavy.

“I have nothing against teachers,” he said, “but we don’t need $120,000 supervisors. We got too damn much deadwood. … Too many administrators—too many chiefs, not enough Indians.”

In Beacon Falls, another senior citizen, Ron Horvath, also opposed the budget but resigned himself to its passage.

“I just don’t have any children in the schools. I’m older,” he said. “We’re not going to win anyway; Prospect has more people, and they don’t care. They’ll vote yes, so we have to vote no.”

Education officials say they stressed frugality, while avoiding austerity, as they crafted the budget. In a letter to voters that was part of a budget book circulated at Monday night’s district meeting at Woodland Regional High School, Superintendent of Schools Jim Agostine wrote that for the second straight year, his question to supervisors was “What can we do without and still work toward the achievement of our mission?”

The answers included upgrades to technology, equipment and furniture, and major building improvements. Over the course of the budget process, $685,842 was cut from those three areas, alone.

The district avoided instruction-related cuts that would have eliminated or combined some course sections and increased class sizes at Woodland.

“This is the second year of a very lean budget, and we’ve worked very hard to make the budget as tight as possible,” Agostine said Wednesday morning. “I think people do recognize that the consumer price index is hovering around 2.6 percent, and our costs do rise. Our operating expenses, just like our operating expenses at home, do go up every year.”

Beacon Falls voter Peter Monti, 43, shared Agostine’s sentiment, calling a 1.4 percent spending increase “appropriate.”

“Operating expenses obviously go up,” he said. “That’s just a fact of life, and if you want to maintain the same level of quality of education, there’s really no choice. On average, you can always figure they’re going to increase by 3 or 4 percent.”

Monti does have children in the school system but insisted personal interests are not what prompted him to support the budget increase.

“Regardless if I had kids in the school system or not, everybody always says children are the future of the country,” he said, “so if you’re not willing to invest 3 or 4 percent annually for the future, there’s no credibility to what you’re saying.”