Region 16 board votes to return full surplus to towns

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By Elio Gugliotti, Editor

PROSPECT — With a divided vote, the Region 16 Board of Education on Feb. 24 opted to return the entire 2019-20 budget surplus to Beacon Falls and Prospect.

The school board, which oversees public schools in the two towns, finished the 2019-20 fiscal year with a budget surplus of $661,286.

Excess school money is returned to the towns in the form of credits on their education payments and divided based on the percentage of students from each town. For the 2019-20 school year, 63.25% of students lived in Prospect and 36.75% in Beacon Falls. Prospect and Beacon Falls will be credited about $418,000 and $243,000, respectively, this fiscal year from the surplus.

Regional school districts are allowed under state law to transfer up to 1% of their budgets into an account for capital projects. Last October, the school board transferred $186,692 from the then-anticipated surplus to finish paying for a HVAC project at Long River Middle School. That meant the board could have transferred up to $220,000 more to its capital account.

The region has about $130,000 in the capital account.

Board members have discussed what to do with the surplus at its past few meetings and the back-and-forth continued last week.

Vice Chairman Robert Hiscox, who made the motion to return the full surplus, said the region’s capital plan is in good shape at the moment and the money should be returned to help taxpayers.

“I think it’s the prudent thing to do at this time,” he said.

Board member Robert Dyer agreed, saying the board has an obligation to offset some of the burden on taxpayers.

Chairman Priscilla Cretella suggested the board transfer another $100,000 to the capital account to help pay for future capital projects.

Board member Erik Dey supported Cretella’s suggestion, saying the taxpayers approved the money for the school board and the board has been responsible with its funds.

Ultimately, the decision to return the full $661,286 came down to a divided vote. Hiscox, Dyer and board members Roxann Vaillancourt and Ben Catanzaro voted in favor of it. Cretella, Dey and board member Christine Arnold voted against it. Board member Nazih Noujaim was absent.

The underlining issue spurring the debate is that Prospect’s budget this fiscal year anticipated $550,000 in surplus school funds as revenue, according to budget documents. Beacon Falls’ 2020-21 budget only included $20,000 in revenue from a school budget surplus, budget documents showed.

The surplus, which stemmed mostly from unspent money due to the COVID-19 pandemic closing schools last March, would have been more if the board hadn’t transferred the $186,692 last fall and credited the towns a total of about $287,000 after the pandemic hit.