Borough to scale back school board’s request

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NAUGATUCK — The joint boards of mayor and burgesses and finance are poised to award the school board a $300,000, or .5 percent, increase for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

The Board of Education last week requested an $899,000, or 1.6 percent, increase and warned that further budget cuts would cripple the educational program in Naugatuck.

But Board of Finance members voted informally Monday to scale back the school system’s increase to one-third of that request. They were scheduled to present the borough’s overall budget—which represents a $738,000, or .716 percent, increase—to the Board of Mayor and Burgesses Thursday, after printing, when they will take formal votes on the budget, before a public hearing Monday.

Opinions varied among finance board members. Dan Sheridan and Matt Katra supported giving the school board no increase over the current year’s budget, which it has already overspent by a projected $750,000.

“I support a flat budget,” Sheridan said. “I think we didn’t get a lot of straight answers [at the Board of Ed.’s budget presentation April 22]. There were some things in there that I think had a lot of fluff. When we went to the BOE meeting on March 30, a number of members indicated that they should develop a backup plan of a flat budget, you know, what that would do. They still haven’t come up with that yet, to help us define what the impact would be. … I think there’s a lot of mush there that hasn’t been solidified into a hard plan.”

He asserted the possible cuts the school board has laid out for consideration were fictitious and nothing more than mere “scare tactics,” echoing the sentiments felt by Katra and Diane Scinto at the school board’s budget presentation.

On the other hand, Don Carten felt a zero-percent increase would be an unrealistic expectation, but thought further savings could be found by closing a school and curtailing middle-school elective programs.

“There’s nothing I’d like to see more than a flat budget,” he said. “I just don’t know how realistic we’re being, considering contractual increases, increases in the costs of energy and insurance and everything else, to look for that. Again, this would be the third year in a row they’d have the same budget. I just don’t think it’s realistic. I could not do it in my home. I’d love to, but I couldn’t. I mean, yeah, I could go and turn off all the lights and sit in the dark and turn off the heat and sit in the cold, but we make compromises, you know, we turn the heat down a little bit and use energy-efficient light bulbs. We make compromises, and I think that’s what this budget should be: a compromise.”

And a compromise it was. After rejecting a .8 percent, $450,000 increase, the finance board turned down a zero-percent increase and a .4 percent, $225,000 increase before settling on a provisional, .5 percent, $300,000 increase.

Deputy Mayor Tamath Rossi reiterated Sheridan’s claim that the school board hadn’t fully painted the potential impact of a zero-percent increase.

“The bottom line is, all we do is tell them what they’re going to have for money,” she said. “The Board of Ed. is the one calling the shots here, and quite frankly, I’m concerned because we’re still not getting specific answers to some of our questions. … It’s really difficult to have some idea of where they might choose to cut based on what they’ve given us so far.”

Burgess Mindy Fragoso added, “Any cuts that they make, regardless of what they are, are their responsibility. We can’t tell them what to do, and I don’t think we should. But it’s time for the Board of Ed. to step up to the plate. We’ve bailed them out several times before. We’re there to help, but they need to do their part in giving us what we’ve asked from every other department in the town,” which is a zero-percent budget increase, in spite of increased costs.

Burgess Bob Neth thought the school board should have asked the teachers’ union to take a pay freeze to help curtail costs in the coming fiscal year.

“You know, everybody says the teachers are all giving back, giving back; yeah, terrific. You gave back last year,” he said, visibly irritated. “But you know what? You haven’t given back in 20 years since I’ve been here. We had people up at City Hill two weeks ago [at the school board’s public budget hearing] saying, ‘The teachers don’t do it for the money.’ Well, Jesus. That’s terrific. How about you take a zero for about three years so we can get our house in order. OK? Because you haven’t taken a zero in the 20 years I’ve been here, and other departments have, and they’ve sacrificed. So shame on the BOE for not even introducing that theory to them.”

When the Naugatuck Teachers’ League agreed to take two unpaid furlough days and one deferred-payment day, and to forfeit five hours of common planning time to help close the current year’s budget gap, union leaders stipulated the school board must make a “good-faith effort” to avoid asking for similar givebacks until the teachers’ contract expires in 2012.

The finance board was scheduled to present its budget proposal to the Board of Mayor and Burgesses Thursday. A public hearing will be held Monday, with a final vote by the joint boards to follow on Thursday, May 13.

Carten summed up the finance board’s prevailing opinion of the overall budget and the school board’s increase.

“Obviously, our job is to present as low a budget as is possible,” he said. “But beyond that, our job is to do what is best for the town overall. I just don’t think, realistically, zero-percent is best for everyone. … I’m not at all happy with the way the Board of Ed. has been run for, well, as long as I’ve been on this board. I just do not see a zero-percent as being the best solution for the citizens of the borough.”

The school board’s likely increase of .5 percent, combines with a .9 percent increase for borough-side governance to form a possible .7 percent overall increase, which would necessitate a half-mill tax increase, from the current rate of 31.52 mills to 32.02 mills. That would increase the 2010-2011 tax liability on an average appraised, $223,000 property by about $80.