BEACON FALLS — A projected surplus in the Region 16 school budget was at the center of discussions Monday night at the Board of Selectmen meeting.
The $39.7 million 2014-15 budget for Region 16, which oversees schools in Beacon Falls and Prospect, was projected to finish with a year-end balance of about $1.37 million. The exact balance won’t be known until an audit is complete.
In June, the Board of Education approved using some the projected balance to pay for capital projects and instructional supplies that are planned for future budgets.
Region 16 Superintendent Michael Yamin came before the Board of Selectmen to discuss the surplus and the plans for the money.
After factoring in the $500,000 “carryover” that is traditionally returned to the towns each year to help pay down education costs, the school board is left with an estimated $800,000 for the projects and supplies. School officials don’t anticipate spending the entire $800,000.
Yamin said a portion of the money will go to capital projects, such as repairs and upgrades at Laurel Ledge Elementary School. He said the planned work at the school includes adding air conditioning in the gym, painting the school and paving the parking lot.
Yamin said the money is also earmarked for instructional supplies for students, such as new textbooks, upgrading computers and musical instruments.
First Selectman Christopher Bielik said the town has concerns over the amount of money the school district is spending and the way it is being spent.
“My sense of it, in this year especially, the sheer magnitude of that surplus was the thing that caught a lot of people’s attention. I’ve been hearing a lot of feedback from people that that seems disproportionately large compared to some of the things that have been out there in the past. That’s been driving a lot of the discussion,” Bielik said.
Yamin explained the surplus, which is similar to budget balances the school district has seen in the past few years, stems from a variety of factors.
Yamin said about $600,000 comes in salaries, which includes savings from unfilled positions and retirements of some higher paid staff. The district also saved $450,000 on health insurance because of a renegotiated rate and $520,000 in special education costs.
Bielik said town officials are also concerned about the process the school district goes through when deciding how to spend a budget balance.
“There’s a process difference, which we recognize, which is a difference between the way Region 16 operates and the way the town of Beacon Falls operates,” Bielik said. “It runs 180 degrees out of the way the town operates.”
Bielik said that when the town wants to use money from a surplus, any amount over $20,000 needs to go before a town meeting to be voted on. Region 16 is not bound by those limitations and is able to use its budget how it pleases.
“For those of us who operate under that constraint and do every single year, to see some of the levels of funding being expended that you’ve been talking about, it rubs them the wrong way,” Bielik said. “There’s nothing illegal about what you have done, it’s just a process difference that causes anxiety at our level.”
Finance Board member Joe Rodorigo said if the school district created a budget to get rid of its surplus the town would see a decrease in taxes.
“If you deducted what the region has charged the town of Beacon Falls there would be almost a 2 mill decrease in the amount of taxes the town of Beacon Falls is paying. And that’s just on your surplus, that’s not on your operations,” Rodorigo said.
Bielik echoed Rodorigo’s sentiments. He pointed out that the town’s mill rate for the 2015-16 fiscal year increased by 0.9 mills, of which Region 16 was responsible for 0.8 mills.
“The reason why it’s so frustrating for us to see these continual surpluses year upon year upon year is because every time the region passes a budget that becomes the new floor. By state statute you can’t go any lower than that, even if the numbers allow you to do it,” Bielik said.
Yamin, who started as superintendent in August, said he’s working to ensure a more accurate school budget in the future.