Faced with declining enrollment, an empty school and an uncertain economic backdrop, Regional School District 13’s Board of Education and other town leaders resolved to work together to seek the opinion of residents, as both the school district and town move forward on budgets for the next fiscal year.
At a Nov. 8 joint meeting of the school board and both Durham’s and Middlefield’s Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance, the five boards discussed the impact of the recently-finalized state budget and future priorities.
Durham First Selectman Laura Francis and Middlefield First Selectman Ed Bailey said the towns must make up the deficit left by cuts in the state aid.
“It’s a welcome relief we have a budget,” Bailey said, “but it’s the start of a trend that will continue. We will see continued reductions.”
Francis said the long delay in passing a state budget meant towns couldn’t adjust their budgets.
“The impact had to go directly to the taxpayers,” she said.
In looking at the priorities for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, the first selectmen said they wanted to maintain their respective towns’ mill rate and not impose tax increases, while school board members reminded them taxpayers also value town services, including education.
“To impose another tax increase on our residents is not sustainable,” Bailey said. “We’re under reduced financial support from state… It’s very difficult to reduce spending from our modest town budget.”
School board member Andrew Taylor spoke against “implicitly making the assumption” that reduced taxes is the only thing residents want, and to consider both sides.
“It’s a little tough to gauge where the general community is,” he said, “and it’s hard for us as a school board to figure out what the community is willing to accept from reductions within the school budget.”
School board chairman Robert Moore said the school board’s efforts have been focused on how to manage the school budget this year and consider how to best utilize building space.
There’s been talk of closing another school, as enrollment declines and is projected to continue declining, which “has long-term savings,” Moore said.
RSD13 Superintendent Kathryn Veronesi said reducing school buildings is the discussion that will get most attention, and support of two communities is going to be critical.
“We have an obligation to look at the number of school buildings we have,” she said, “and to examine how we can reduce the amount of money that’s being directed toward operating another school building.”
Francis said gauging the desires of a community starts with asking the right questions.
“When you ask somebody if they want something, the answer usually is always ‘yes,’ ” but when asked to pay for it, they baulk, Francis said.
“We have to find a tolerance level,” she said. “We have to find what our community can handle” by doing outreach and being prepared to accept the answers.
School board member Nancy Boyle seconded reaching out to residents to gauge the level of support for maintaining low taxes versus funding town services.
“We don’t want to have an acrimonious budget season,” she said.