Board voices frustration with school spending

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BEACON FALLS — The Board of Finance has raised issues with school spending after budget surpluses have increased each of the last three years.

In a letter dated Aug. 24 to Region 16 Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin, the board voiced its feelings on the budget balances, how the money has been spent and the impact the education budget has on town finances.

“Our board does not want to tread into your area of responsibility,” the letter states. “We are respectfully asking you, on behalf of our constituents and like-minded citizens in Prospect, to recognize that the Region 16 budgets over the past few years have had significant impact on our tax rates and subsequently the services we can offer to the town.”

The letter comes two months after school officials announced the $39.7 million 2014-15 budget for the region, which oversees schools in Beacon Falls and Prospect, was projected to finish with a year-end balance of about $1.37 million.

As of last week, Director of Finance and Business Operations Pamela Mangini said that projection has grown to closer to $1.5 million. The exact figure won’t be known until an audit is completed.

According to school officials, the surplus is due mainly to staff turnover, which resulted in hiring younger, less expensive teachers; fewer employees than anticipated taking the district’s health care; and the district no longer having to pay for two students who needed to be out-placed for special services the district couldn’t provide.

In June, the Board of Education approved using some of the projected surplus on instructional supplies, capital projects and repairs to schools that were planned for future budget years.

Yamin said the board spent about $600,000. Putting air conditioning in and repairing the parking lot at Laurel Ledge Elementary School in Beacon Falls, and repairing asphalt at Long River Middle School in Prospect were among the larger-ticket items done, he said.

The finance board contends that spending money on items other than what was outlined in the budget reduces transparency.

“Regardless of the causes of over-budgeting for a given fiscal year, to spend any portion for purposes not detailed in the budget approved by your constituent body serves to remove the control intended by that year’s budget approval,” the letter states. “A primary function of any budget is the open and transparent communication of the intended use for those funds. All spending activity outside of that budget, though legal, reduces that transparency.”

Yamin, who started in August 2014, said he’s attended Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance meetings to provide updates to town officials. He addressed the projected 2014-15 budget surplus during the Board of Selectmen meeting in July.

“I, as an agent of the Region 16 Board of Education, have been transparent and forthcoming in disclosing all educational updates, initiatives and financial decisions in an effort to create a partnership that is reflective of collective decision making in the best interest of the children while maintaining fiscal responsibility,” Yamin said.

Yamin added the school board held several budget workshops, and also requested representation from Beacon Falls during recent contract negotiations. He said members of the finance board failed to attend any negotiation sessions or offer specific requests during any of the budget workshops.

“It needs to be an active avenue of two-way communication to achieve our goals and provide a community, which supports a positive culture and a healthy school community for our children,” Yamin said.

The year-end school budget balances have increased each of the last three years. The 2012-13 and 2013-14 school budgets finished with year-end balances of $744,191 and $1.06 million, respectively. Voters in the region approved transferring money from each budget balance into a capital non-recurring account.

Each of the three surpluses, including the projected 2014-15 balance, include the traditional $500,000 “carryover” that is returned to the towns to help pay down education expenses.

In light of the recent surplus, the finance board stressed the impact school spending has on the town budget.

The school budget has increased an average of 2.81 percent the last three budgets, including the 2 percent increase in the 2015-16 spending plan. Over that same time, the letter states, town spending has increased on average 1.14 percent.

“Our town’s mill rate increases have been caused primarily by Region 16’s budgets,” the letter states.

The board acknowledged in the letter that the six-year average increase in school spending is 1.95 percent compared to a 2.31 percent average for the town budget. However, the board pointed out in the letter, that a 1 percent increase equates to $405,000 in the current school budget compared to $62,000 for the town budget.

The finance board said the town has put off major work, including repairs to the wastewater treatment plant, recently in order to avoid overburdening taxpayers.

“We are presenting town budgets with small increases so we can get a majority of voters to support them, which is not easy when our mill rate is increased almost entirely due to Region 16 budget increases,” the letter states.

In response, Yamin said, “I will venture to state that a town’s tax base, economic development, and budget process should not rest solely on the appetite for educational opportunities for its children.”

The finance board states in the letter that it hopes its concerns are taken into account and the 2016-17 school budget is presented with no increase.

“Based on the recent large fund balances, this is a reasonable objective,” the letter states.

Yamin said this year’s budget is 1.25 percent less than the previous two years, which supports the school board’s efforts in being fiscally responsible. He added that it’s too early to discuss a zero percent increase for next year.

“I think it is premature and contemptible to request a zero budget increase for next year in the first month of our 2015-2016 budget year,” Yamin said.

1 COMMENT

  1. Very HAPPY to see that the Board of Finance of the Town of Beacon Falls is taking a good look at the Education Budget. Mr Yamin should look at his budget and realize that most of it goes to salaries and benefits, I thought it was for the kids. Hopefully the Town of Prospect will join in this search for transparency.