Region 16 budget set for May 4 referendum

PROSPECT — The Region 16 Board of Education will learn next week whether it has satisfied taxpayers’ desire to keep spending under control when a $36.6 million school budget goes to referendum. The district will hold its annual meeting Monday at 7 p.m. at Woodland Regional High School, then open polls from 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday for a public vote. The polling places will be the Laurel Ledge School gymnasium in Beacon Falls and the Prospect Firehouse.

The proposed budget represents a $506,222, or 1.4 percent, increase over the current budget. To arrive at that figure, education officials made several rounds of cuts: First, Superintendent of Schools Jim Agostine trimmed $565,906 from department heads’ requests. He pitched a $37.2 million budget to the school board March 10.

Then, at a series of workshops and meetings, the board cut another $547,986. Based on an April 14 public hearing, it cut $1,895 from a furniture and fixtures account but added $6,853 to the certified staff account, restoring a part-time high school math teacher.

The most-heavily-reduced budget categories and their decreases were:

  • Technology, $490,366
  • Personnel, $284,192
  • Major building improvements, $127,200
  • Special education, $93,900
  • Equipment and furniture, $68,276

Most of the budget’s increases are a result of rising employees’ salaries and insurance benefits. Wages and benefits would cost $24.5 million under the proposed budget, a $561,974 increase.

Region 16 Superintendent Jim Agostine said he is "guardedly optimistic" voters will approve the district's proposed budget at Tuesday's referendum.

Region 16 Superintendent Jim Agostine said he is "guardedly optimistic" voters will approve the district's proposed budget at Tuesday's referendum.

That hike is mitigated by a new, three-year teachers’ contract, under which teachers will receive neither a general wage nor a step increase next year, and the fact that the region’s debt service will actually decrease in 2010-11, by $142,410, to about $3.5 million.

Last year, Region 16 voters overwhelmingly approved a .48 percent increase by paper ballot, at the district meeting. But they have proven unafraid to reject a budget they believe to be too costly. The last time a budget went to referendum, in 2008, district voters denied a 5.31 percent increase then voted no to a revised, 4.21 percent increase at a second referendum three weeks later. Finally, at a third referendum, they accepted a 3.73 percent bump.

Agostine said he is “guardedly optimistic” the 2010-11 budget will pass the first time.

“It’s a reasonable request,” he said, “and it doesn’t do damage to our educational program.”

Last month, Agostine outlined additional cuts that would include one section of each of the following courses at Woodland: algebra I and II, geometry, pre-calculus, and Spanish II and II. Average class sizes would increase in each of those disciplines.

Also, different levels of the same courses would be combined, but students would be graded according to their levels. For instance, advanced placement calculus and honors calculus, currently taught separately, would be joined in a single section, but the AP and honors students would be graded differently. The same would be true of Spanish V and AP Spanish, and French III and French III honors.

So far, the school board has deemed those rollbacks unnecessary, an evaluation for which Agostine said he is thankful.

“We’ve trimmed away everything that we can possibly trim away and feel comfortable that we’re not impacting students’ supplies and learning opportunities for kids,” he said. “And if the budget were to fail, unfortunately the discussion of what kind of programming we would have to curtail will be the next conversation.”

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