SOUTHINGTON – Finance board members said they’re concerned about education expenses outpacing the town’s economic growth and inflation after hearing a presentation on the district’s budget by school officials.
Last month, the school board voted unanimously in favor of a $100.2 million spending plan, which represents a 4.6 percent increase over the current budget of $95.8 million. School officials presented the budget to the Board of Finance on Wednesday night.
“The percent increase is higher than inflation, higher than what we originally expected,” said finance board chairman John Leary. “As a board, we’re going to listen, we’re going to question things. We’re going to work our way towards ensuring we have a responsible budget.”
Education officials added funding for foreign languages in elementary schools as well as special education staff to the 2019-20 spending plan. Most of the budget goes to salaries and benefits that are set by negotiated union contracts. School leaders are looking to add $4.4 million to the budget.
The contractual increases for salaries and benefits would total nearly $3 million or 2.5 percent, according to finance board member Kevin Beaudoin. He supports using that number as a starting point for education budget discussions but said the full increase will be “difficult.”
“It’s the highest budget increase in 10 years,” Beaudoin said.
School Superintendent Tim Connellan said the spending increase was in part to replenish funds that were used to avoid teacher layoffs and other program losses.
Brian Goralski, school board chairman, said he feels district is lean administratively, partners with the town to save money and has only one high school to fund.
“I wish they would look at it the way the facts show it,” he said. “Southington spends less per student than all but 10 districts in the state of Connecticut.”
There are no extras in the budget to cut, Goralski said.
“We spend every dollar we get to improve student achievement,” he said.
Tony Morrison, a finance board member, said grand list growth provided the town with $1.8 million due to new construction and taxable equipment for the upcoming year. But the state will require $1.1 million more in employee pension contributions, according to Morrison. Even without cuts in state aid or increases from town government spending, he said the town would have to raise the tax rate by about a mill to fund the education budget increase.
A mill is the number of dollars in tax on every $1,000 of assessed property value.
“That would be a very onerous tax increase,” Morrison said. “We do have communities in town, such as senior citizens, who do have problems with an increase like that.”
Morrison praised the work of the school district, saying it “punches above its weight” in regards to efficiency and education outcomes. But he was concerned about the sustainability of the school district’s spending model.
“It’s an issue this year, it was an issue last year,” Morrison said. “It will continue to be bigger and bigger as you go along.”
The finance board must approve the total spending for the education board but doesn’t control how that money is used. The Town Council has final approval on the combined town and school budgets.
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