Region 16 BOE moving forward with budget sans public vote

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By Elio Gugliotti, Editor

PROSPECT — The Region 16 Board of Education is on course to set its 2020-21 school budget without the typical public vote on the spending plan.

The proposed budget for the region, which is comprised of Beacon Falls and Prospect, is about $40.7 million. The budget proposal keeps overall school spending the same as this fiscal year.

Typically, the school board adopts its budget proposal then it goes to a public vote at a district meeting or referendum in early May. With the state in the grasp of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order that suspends requirements for any public budget votes, including referendums and district meetings on budgets for regional boards of education.

The Region 16 school board is scheduled to adopt a budget proposal Wednesday. The board will take public comment electronically on the budget at its April 22 meeting in the place of a hearing, before voting to approve the budget or hold off to make changes.

School board Chairman Priscilla Cretella encouraged residents to reach out to board members and the district office with questions and comments on the budget.

“I think it’s the best we have. We’re using the technology we have to give the people the best opportunity to give input,” she said.

School officials maintained overall spending at $40.7 million due largely to a reduction of $1.1 million in debt payments. The $1.1 million was the final payment on the bond for the construction of Woodland Regional High School, which was made this fiscal year.

The retired debt offset some contractual increases in the budget. Salaries are increasing about $700,000 to roughly $23 million in the budget proposal. The cost of health care increases $389,172 to about $4.9 million in the proposal. Salaries and benefits make up 72% of the budget.

The proposal cuts a 10-month secretary position and a part-time teaching position at Woodland. The proposal also reduces the assistant principal position at Long River Middle School and a secretary position from 12 months to 10 months, and reduces the Woodland library aide position to 32.5 hours a week.

The net education costs for the towns aren’t staying the same, even though the proposal maintains the same overall spending level.

The net education cost, which is the share of the school budget funded by local taxes, is divided between Beacon Falls and Prospect based on the percentage of students from each town. The percentage of Prospect students has grown over recent years, which has shifted more of the burden on the town.

Based on the student population ratio and estimated revenues, Prospect’s net cost is projected to increase $1.4 million, or 7.4%, to $20.5 million. Beacon Falls’ net cost is projected to decrease $53,025, or 0.4%, to $10.8 million.

During the board’s special April 1 meeting, Vice Chairman Robert Hiscox questioned what the impact on the budget would be if it was cut 1% to 2%.

Superintendent of Schools Michael Yamin said the budget is tight. He said staff would have to be eliminated to cut the budget 1%, which is about $400,000.

“In order to save that kind of money would mean a reduction in staffing,” Yamin said.

Yamin said officials are anticipating a surplus of about $1 million this fiscal year in savings from contractual services due to schools being closed.

Any surplus will offset the towns’ education payments next spring, after the towns have set their budgets and tax rates.

Hiscox said he doesn’t want to eliminate staff to cut the budget. He asked officials to look for possible ways to use the anticipated surplus to reduce costs for the towns, including carrying over some as revenue for the towns or paying ahead for items in the 2020-21 budget.

“The times are difficult for a lot of people in both towns,” he said.