Public makes plea for school funds

NAUGATUCK — School funding dominated the discussion Monday night as parents, residents and school officials implored the Joint Boards of Finance and Mayor and Burgesses to restore a requested increase in the Board of Education’s budget.

“If there’s anything you’re going to scrap, it cannot be education,” parent Michael Cook told the joint boards during a public hearing on the borough’s 2018-19 budget proposal.

Overall, the budget proposal is $121,468,740, which increases spending by $1,032,662, or 0.86 percent. The proposal would reduce the mill rate 0.15 mills to 48.40 mills due to increased revenues. A mill is $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

Under the proposal, the school budget would remain flat at $61,683,651. If adopted, it would mark the third straight year without an increase in the school budget.

The school board presented a budget request to the Board of Finance that would have increased school spending by $482,567, or 0.78 percent. The joint boards initially reduced the requested increase to $316,349, which would have brought the school budget to an even $62 million, before voting to flat fund the school budget in a decision that was not unanimous.

Superintendent of Schools Sharon Locke said school officials scrutinize the budget, and the board has been fortunate to utilize state alliance grants to keep spending flat the last two budget cycles.

“I would hope that our fiscal responsibility has earned us the confidence and trust of the joint boards,” Locke said during the hearing. “I assure you the Board of Ed would not be asking for an increase if it wasn’t absolutely necessary to continue serving Naugatuck’s children.”

The joint boards have no control over how the school board spends its money, only how much is provided for the school budget.

Locke’s recommendations to keep the school budget flat include reducing a number of positions. The positions include three new ones proposed for next school year — a guidance counselor and two paraeducators. The new guidance counselor would allow for a full-time counselor in every school.

A media teacher, IT administrator, Naugatuck High School interventionists, and a part-time nurse and secretary — all existing positions — are also among the recommended cuts to keep school spending level. Several capital projects along with money to create a lacrosse program at the high school and intramural sports would also be removed from the budget, under the recommendations.

After factoring in funds held back this year, Locke said Naugatuck is slated to get an increase of about $243,000 in its Education Cost Sharing grant from the state under the revised state budget approved by the legislature last week. She asked the joint boards to at least give the school board a $286,000 increase in order to save the personnel reductions and cuts.

“That reduction directly impacts our ability to serve our students,” Locke said.

Heisi Figueroa, a parent and president of the Hop Brook Elementary School PTO, said there isn’t enough support in place in schools now to help all the children already struggling. For some children whose families are struggling at home, she said the only support and encouragement they may receive is at school.

“You have to think about the families and how they are going to be affected,” Figueroa told the joint boards.

Kevin Kuzma, a parent, said supporting education is one of the best ways to attract and keep young families and increase property values.

“I really think an investment in education is critical to the growth of this town,” he said.

Board of Finance Chairman Daniel Sheridan said borough officials are in favor of a quality education.

“I think to a T all the people on this board support education. We also have to take into account the needs of the taxpayers,” Sheridan said.

However, Sheridan said the school budget isn’t really staying flat since the school board had surpluses of over a $1 million on average the past couple of years. He said Locke has been fiscally responsible and the surpluses show the school board has been able to operate at less than what was budgeted.

Sheridan said the joint boards will take into account comments from the public when it meets Thursday night at Town Hall to review and adopt a budget.

Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess said Naugatuck is projected to receive more funding from the state than anticipated. But, he said, officials shouldn’t bank on the additional revenue since the borough didn’t get all the state funding promised this fiscal year.

Hess said officials will finalize the figures and make some minor adjustments to the budget before Thursday’s meeting.

Officials will have more than the school budget to consider before adopting a final budget. Several senior citizens were on hand and asked the joint boards to restore a $1,800 cut to an elderly tax credit program.

The program allows eligible senior citizens to work in Town Hall in exchange for a credit on their property taxes. There are 18 spots in the program and the seniors receive a $500 credit for 50 hours of work in a year.

Earlier this year, the Board of Mayor and Burgesses voted to cut the credit by $100 to $400 and cut the amount of time seniors work to 40 hours a year.

Former Mayor Joan Taf, who uses the program, said restoring the $500 credit would help seniors keep living in their homes, adding other towns offer senior tax credit programs that people don’t have to work to earn.