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Meriden school board requests .25 percent increase

MERIDEN — Members of the Finance Committee of the City Council responded favorably to a proposed Board of Education budget that calls for a 0.25 percent increase, but no additional funding from the city.

The 0.25 percent increase represents an additional $252,377 for the 2014-15 fiscal year, bringing the total spending plan including state funding to $103,992,336.

Though the board is requesting a slightly higher budget than what was appropriated this year, the extra funding will come as an advance health care payment to the city from savings the board saw in the current health care budget.

Since school boards across the state aren’t allowed to end the year with surplus money, savings in the health insurance account will be used this fiscal year to pay the city in advance, rather than rolling the money over into the coming fiscal year.

“It’s something the council has let us do in the past, and it’s a way to offer them zero increase,” School Superintendent Mark Benigni said Wednesday.

City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior joked at Wednesday’s presentation, “It’s taken me years to get them to this point.”

If the proposed budget is approved by the City Council, it will mark the fifth consecutive year that the Board of Education has been flat-funded by the city. Benigni cautioned city councilors that they should “plan now for funding our 2014-15 budget, after taking zeros from the city for the past five years.”

Increases in the past have been made up by $4 million in state funding, which the board expects to receive again in the coming year.

“This is my 10th budget presentation, and it’s fairly unique that the board didn’t come here looking for additional funding,” Kendzior said, “I think the point’s been well taken that it’s important to spend money thoughtfully, and that seems to be the attitude of the board.”

With enrollment projected to drop next year — from 8,743 students this year to 8,722 in 2014-15 — the budget increase is driven by contractual raises in staff salaries, health benefits, and transportation costs, Benigni said.

Staff salaries and benefits make up 73 percent of the overall budget, while transportation contributes 6 percent. The rest is spent on tuitions, heat and utilities, and materials.

Some of the major savings in the proposed spending plan were seen by switching all school unions to Health Savings Accounts — meaning a lower premium in the first year of the new accounts and a savings of more than $800,000 in outside tuition costs, mostly for students receiving special education.

Benigni explained that by meeting the special needs of students with opportunities within the school system, the board can save as much as $100,000 per student that would have been spent on the tuition of sending them elsewhere.

One area where the board is looking for increases is for capital improvement projects, which are separated out from the school budget, and will be discussed next week by members of the Finance Committee.

The board requested money for roof replacements at Nathan Hale School and Roger Sherman School, as well as a replacement boiler at Roger Sherman, and a total of 13,000 square feet of sidewalks at Nathan Hale and Thomas Hooker.

“I was at Platt years ago when the roof was an absolute disaster, and I think it’s obviously better to be proactive than reactive,” City Councilor Kevin Scarpati said.

Of the budget proposal overall, City Councilor Miguel Castro said, “I’m thoroughly impressed. You have my support.”

His comments were echoed by Councilor Lenny Rich, who said, “This is the Finance Committee; we’re interested in saving the taxpayers’ dollars, and I think you’ve done a great job with that.” (203) 317-2279 Twitter: @MollCal

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