School board pares spending increase

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Region 16 Board of Education members, from left, William Fredericks, Robert Hiscox, Wendy Oliveira, Donna Cullen and Priscilla Cretella discuss the budget during a workshop Wednesday at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI
Region 16 Board of Education members, from left, William Fredericks, Robert Hiscox, Wendy Oliveira, Donna Cullen and Priscilla Cretella discuss the budget during a workshop Wednesday at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

 

REGION 16 — The Board of Education trimmed its proposed budget increase for 2013-14 by $89,430 Wednesday night following the second failed attempt to gain approval from voters on a spending plan.

The proposed budget for Region 16, which oversees schools in Beacon Falls and Prospect, now stands at nearly $38.5 million budget. The proposal is an increase of just about $1.2 million or 3.2 percent over the current budget.

The proposal will increase the net education cost to Beacon Falls by $382,888 or 4.07 percent, to nearly $9.8 million. Prospect’s net education cost will increase to nearly $16.1 million under the proposal, an increase of $723,765 or 4.7 percent.

The board approved sending the budget to a paper ballot vote at a district meeting June 17 at 7 p.m. at Long River Middle School in Prospect. A petition was subsequently submitted to force the vote to a referendum.

The referendum will be held June 18 from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voting will take place at the firehouse in Prospect and Laurel Ledge Elementary School in Beacon Falls. The district meeting will still take place to discuss the budget then adjourn to the referendum.

The proposal is the third one the board has sent to a vote. The original proposed $38.8 million budget was rejected by 185 votes at a May 7 referendum. A second, revised proposal of $38.58 million was defeated by 45 votes at a referendum May 30.

In anticipation of Wednesday’s budget workshop school administrators met and put together a list of further reductions and cuts for the board to consider, board Chair Priscilla Cretella explained to the crowd gathered in Woodland Regional High School’s media center.  

“This is not something that we’re taking lightly,” she said.

The reductions and cuts approved Wednesday night included an assistant coach for cheerleading and golf at Woodland for a total cut of $5,558, $10,000 from the technology lease budget, $10,000 from summer curriculum programs for teachers and $10,000 from summer hours for district office staff.

The board also received three retirement notices from Long River teachers after the last budget was approved and expects to save $37,286 by hiring less expensive teachers to fill the positions.

The health insurance account was adjusted as well for a reduction of more than $11,000.

“We are taking a little chance there,” Business Manager Pamela Mangini told the board.

Mangini said the account could change if a staff member places a spouse or a new child on their health care plan.

Board members Robert Hiscox and Nazih Noujaim expressed concerns over the adjustment arguing that it could come back to bite the board if faculty members move to more expensive plans.

Cretella said she feels it’s a fair reduction and the board had to take the funds since it doesn’t impact students and was recommended by the administration.

Other staff cuts were brought up, including .5 kindergarten positions at Laurel Ledge and Algonquin schools and a .5 art teacher at Woodland, but motions on making these cuts weren’t made by the board.  

A plan to implement “pay to participate” in sports at Woodland was also raised as a way to bring in additional revenue to the district.

Using rough figures of $75 per student per sport with a $200 family cap, Mangini estimated the district could realize an additional $27,000 in revenue.

Several board members felt it was premature to vote on a “pay to participate” program and more research needs to be done.

“I think it’s something we need to discuss,” board member Robin Wright said.

The board approved the revamped budget proposal 7-1 with board member William Fredericks voting against it.

Following the workshop, Fredericks said he voted against the budget because he felt the board should have at least put the additional cuts, such as the kindergarten teachers, on the table for discussion for the public’s sake.  

“I don’t think I want to see the additional cuts made,” he said.

Before the board delved into its discussion, the floor was opened to the public to weigh in on the budget. About a dozen people addressed the board with parents asking the board to refrain from further cuts and consider sending the second or original budget back to a vote.

“Education is an investment,” said Christy Tottenham, a mother of two children at Laurel Ledge. “We’re investing in our kids. We’re investing in our future.”

Those who spoke in favor of no further cuts and reductions felt not enough people knew about the budget votes and the budget would pass if people come out to vote.

Wendy Hopkinson of Beacon Falls said she understands the pressure the board is under to keep any increase to a minimum. However, she said, the last budget only failed by 45 votes.

“That is not an overwhelming defeat against the budget where it stands today,” she said. “There are many people that supported that budget.”

Dino Verrelli of Beacon Falls presented a petition to the board with 328 signatures to make no more cuts or bring back the original budget to a vote.

Others asked to board to consider the plight of residents on a fixed income and make more cuts to the budget.

“Please consider the hardship of people on fixed income, Social Security,” Beacon Falls resident Paul Summers said.

Ed Groth of Beacon Falls said businesses and seniors are leaving the state because of “crushing taxes” and the youth are leaving because there are no jobs.

“The state is really on hard times and a lot of people are out there hurting,” Groth said.

Groth, who submitted petitions to force the two referendums, said the board needs to make deeper cuts in areas like support staff. He said the board has to look out for people who can’t afford constant tax increases coming from the local, state and federal levels.

“We’re getting hit every which way,” he said. “We’ve reached our tipping point.”

Over the course of the budget process, the board cut or reduced a number of positions prior to Wednesday night.

Five intervention specialists — four at the elementary schools and one at Long River — have been cut. A middle school teaching position has been cut as well as a third-grade teaching position at Laurel Ledge. The board will not be filling a full-time position in special education. Two cafeteria aide positions have also been eliminated.

Also, the board reduced a theater teacher from a full-time position to a .8 position, a half position in art and a half position in consumer science all at Woodland. The board also reduced a full-time custodian position at Algonquin School in Prospect to part-time.

Major cost drivers for the budget include increases in fixed costs, including tuition for students who attend magnet schools and special education students who are out-placed to schools for services the district can’t provide, health insurance and debt service. The increase in debt service is a result of the preliminary bonding of the $47.5 million three-part construction project, according to school officials.