School board backs $37.3 million budget

Region 16 Board of Education Vice Chair Donna Cullen, left, and board member Sheryl Feducia listen during a public hearing on the school budget Wednesday night at Long River Middle School in Prospect. The board approved a $37.3 million school budget. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

PROSPECT — After some last-minute adjustments, the Region 16 Board of Education approved a $37.3 million budget proposal for the coming fiscal year.

“This is a very hard budget. We’re not delighted with it but it’s the best that we have,” said school board Chair Priscilla Cretella following a public hearing Wednesday night at Long River Middle School.

The $37.3 million proposal represents a $527,628 or 1.44 percent increase over current school spending. The budget will now go to a region meeting for a vote. The meeting is scheduled for May 7 at 7 p.m. at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls.

Under the proposal, Beacon Falls’ net education cost would increase $203,403 or 2.19 percent. Prospect’s net cost would increase $528,484 or 3.55 percent.

Beacon Falls’ net education cost for the current year is $9.27 million. Prospect’s net education cost is $14.9 million this year.

The increase to the towns are about half of what was projected during an April 2 budget workshop. At the time, school officials projected the board’s budget carryover this year was dramatically lower than usual — around $76,000. As it turned out, the $76,000 figure was derived from miscalculations. On Wednesday, Hugh Potter, the board’s business manager, said the carryover in the current budget is $500,000.

Carryovers do not impact the bottom line of school budgets. However, whatever money is carried over any given year is returned to the towns and used to offset increases in school spending.

The board further reduced the budget increase by a net decrease of about $200,000 prior to the vote. The decrease stems from reductions in electricity, insurance, and busing costs along with $60,000 from teachers who are retiring this year under a volunteer early retirement plan.

The budget includes the elimination of a handful of positions. A sixth-grade teaching position at Long River Middle School will be eliminated. The remaining position cuts will take place at Woodland. Two part-time custodial positions, which are already vacant, will be cut at the high school along with a .6 English teacher and a .4 social studies teacher.

Originally, the board had planned to cut a part-time music teaching position at the high school as well. But, the position was resorted during an emergency meeting Tuesday night after board members learned the impacts of the cut were more than originally thought.

When the board proposed the cut school officials anticipated it would just eliminate some electives, such as piano and music theory, that have very small enrollments. However, that was not the case. Cutting the part-time music position, the board learned, would have eliminated larger band programs, such as the school’s jazz ensemble.

Cretella said the issue resulted from miscommunication.

“It was never the board’s intention to drop any part of band,” she said.

Many of those in attendance at the hearing came out to support music and fine arts in the school.

“The removal of fine arts and music classes from our schools is the first step to a society with no soul and that is not a society I want to live in,” said Woodland junior Rex Sturdevant, who has been involved with the band since fifth grade.

Although the music position was restored, a motion made by board member Sheryl Feducia following the hearing to reinstate the part-time English position at Woodland didn’t get a second and failed.

In getting the budget increase down to 1.44 percent the board reduced or cut from multiple areas of the budget, the largest being nearly $300,000 in reductions from technology improvements in the schools.

Some at the hearing felt the board didn’t go far enough.

“The only acceptable budget for me this year is a flat budget,” said Ed Groth of Beacon Falls.

Groth said in normal times a budget increase like the one proposed by the board would be acceptable. But with drops in the grand lists of Beacon Falls and Prospect, tax increases in the state and the current economy, he said, these are not normal times.

Howard Daniels of Beacon Falls agreed the budget should stay flat this year.

“The people of Connecticut, Beacon Falls, all over are stressed for work, for money,” Daniels said.

Others wanted to see items and money put back into to the budget.

Catherine Mirabilio, a culinary arts teacher at Woodland, asked the board to consider reinstating the culinary arts position to full time. Mirabilio’s position was cut in half last budget cycle in a move that elicited a large number of students to speak out against the cut.

Prospect resident Derek Muharem said it will be difficult for the board to achieve its goal of providing a high quality education with all of the cuts and reductions it has made, particularly in technology. He said other districts or investing in technology while Region 16 is cutting it.

Muharem felt the board should put money back in for technology and let the people decide whether they want to spend that money for schools.

Aside from the music position, the board restored nothing else in the budget.

As the budget proposal goes to the region meeting, future reductions in the increase still remain a possibility.

The proposed budget was prepared using the current level of Education Cost Sharing funds the towns received from the state.

“Rather than be overly optimistic we’re using the known numbers from last year,” Potter said.

If the state increases ECS funding to the towns this year it will be used to reduce the towns’ increases, officials said.

“There is potentially future savings for the taxpayers depending on what the state legislature does,” board member Robert Hiscox said.