BERLIN — The Board of Education unanimously passed a $46.2 million budget, a nearly 6 percent increase in funding for the 2019-20 school year.
The funding request will be presented at a Feb. 20 meeting of the Board of Finance, whose approval is needed before the budget can move to the Town Council and an eventual referendum.
The sum was approved at the Feb. 11 school board meeting and would constitute a $2.6 million increase in school spending over this year’s budget.
Superintendent Brian Benigni said subsequent budget increases that fell below increases in employee compensation have left little room for the district to make cuts to avoid such a large increase.
“We now have that competitive high school. We now have a program of studies that I feel is second to none...the budget numbers to support that are very difficult at the 1 percent - they’re almost impossible,” he said, referring to an average 1.4 percent increase in school funding over the past five years. “There’s not a lot of room there to make cuts without losing programming.”
The board also passed a $1,275,000 capital spending request, which largely consists of replacements for technology such as computer servers and the annual turnover of Chromebooks used by students.
“I think it’s important to note that Berlin schools is a 1:1 district, which means that we have technology issued to each of our students,” board President Matthew Tencza said. “We’ve been maintaining that for a number of years, but we’ve been doing that with bandaids and bubble gum.”
A further $1,078,800 site and building funding request was made separately, half of which would cover additional security staff and infrastructure such as cameras. The rest of the allocation would go toward maintenance of buildings and grounds.
John Richards, the Board of Finance’s liaison to the school board, said the town needs to increase its spending on infrastructure in the schools and municipal expenses. He referenced the town’s 10-year capital plan, designed to wean the town off bonding for recurring maintenance projects.
“We need to continue to make that step towards where the capital spending per year is appropriate. We can no longer afford to underfund the schools any more than we can underfund the facilities that are in our town,” he said.
In passing the budget, the school board declined to reduce the amount Benigni originally called for when he presented his budget proposal at the board’s Jan. 14 meeting. At the meeting board members concurred with his designating the proposal a “maintenance budget” which just sustains what the district already has.
“There really are no areas where I would feel comfortable cutting,” board member Adam Salina said.
A few positions which had been eliminated from past budgets were reinstated to keep up with the workload and comply with an arbitration ruling. Employee compensation makes up the majority of the budget’s increase at $1.6 million between salaries and benefits.
“My fear is that in the past 5 years our 5 year average has been a 1.3 percent increase. A continuing increase of 1.3 doesn't even allow us to cover contractual increases...so we will be looking at eliminating programs and staff,” Benigni said of cuts to the requested amount.
The cost of covering tuition for students with special needs attending schools out of the district is also set to rise to $2.5 million, a $558,000 increase.
The allocation for contractual services is also moving up an additional $365,000, largely driven by the Effective School Solutions program being paid for through the operational budget. In this year’s budget the program’s $272,000 cost was covered with funds left over at the end of the year through staff positions which were intentionally left unfilled.