Southington school budget passes over Democratic objections

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SOUTHINGTON — The Board of Education approved a revised version of the superintendent’s 2024 budget along party lines on Thursday.

The budget passed Thursday totals $110,980,656, which is $1,069,228 less than the amount worked out at the last budget workshop. It represents a 6.28% increase over the current year’s budget, versus the previously proposed 7.31% increase.

Republicans, who hold a 6-3 majority on the board, caucused privately to discuss the budget, outside of the scheduled workshop meetings, before deciding to support the more than $1 millon reduction primarily through the use of the school system’s non-lapsing funds account, which is set aside for projects and safety improvements to district facilities.

The announcement of the budget amount came as a surprise to board Democrats, who said they were not informed of the change ahead of when it was put up for approval. Republican board Chair Colleen Clark said she attempted to get in touch with them so they could be informed.

This upset the Democrats, who said they had not been contacted or made aware of the changes. Democrats Zaya Oshana and Terri Carmody voted against the approval of the revised budget, arguing that the issue should have been brought forward at a public workshop and that taking money from the non-lapsing account compromised student safety by taking funds away from maintenance projects.

“This is a nine-member board, not a six-member board,” Carmody said, “I think it would have been courteous if the three Democrats that are on this board were in some shape or form included in this discussion. It’s very bothersome to me that we were not because I have many questions I want to ask about the non-lapsing fund.”

The major concern for Democrats is that using a considerable amount from the non-lapsing fund, which is one-time-use money provided by grants and the federal government, to fund the district operations puts the district on a “fiscal cliff.” With a sharp reduction in grant money over the following years, they feel relying on that money for basic operational expenses will put the schools in an untenable position for the following budget year.

“They’re not recurring revenues. So how do we make up that massive hole next year? They’re going to have to fund, even if they want level services next year, we got to get all that money back. I don’t know how it’s gonna happen. That is fiscally irresponsible to do what happened last night,” Oshana said Friday.

The funds were allocated for smaller district projects — such as installing a security vestibule at Southington High School, repairs to worn-down stairways with concrete exposed, poorly secured doors, weathered tilework, and replacements for safety radios and other technology.

While other projects, such as the roof improvements, remain unchanged, Democratic members of the board believe cutting back on those smaller, but still important projects poses a safety risk to students and staff at the schools.

‘It’s been politicized’

Democratic members say they are actively being shut out of what is becoming a politically motivated school board, particulary since such significant changes were made outside of a public workshop session.

“It was assumed I guess that they would walk in and propose a cut to the budget and that we would all agree to it, but without having any information. That’s why I made the motion at the end to table it so we could talk it through and understand exactly what’s going on and why they presented what they presented,” Oshana said. “It’s been politicized. We’re the Board of Education, we’re not a political board. We’ve been politicized at this point. It’s really, really disappointing. Because I think the decisions they made were without all the facts that they needed to know. You’re talking about cutting safety and security items from our budget and not recognizing that? That’s very surprising and disappointing to me.”

Carmody echoed those sentiments. A prior chair of the Board of Education as a Republican, she said she was ostracized from trying to have conversations with members across the aisle, saying that over the years the board has become increasingly politicized.

“The Republicans have made the Board of Education a political party. And that’s not what our job is,” Carmody said. “You know, we Democrats were not part of any of the decision-making and what they came up with. And that’s not the way it should be.”

‘Fiscal reality’

Board Chair Colleen Clark took responsibility at the meeting for the lack of communication with the Democratic members, saying that it wasn’t her intention to keep them in the dark ahead of the meeting, having been out of town after Monday’s caucus for personal reasons.

She contended that the decision made at the caucus was for the good of the district and to keep operations level. Despite the 6% increase, the district has seen no new additions to staff or significant improvement projects, and with the decrease in non-lapsing funds the projects the district was considering have now been scaled back. The sharp increase has been caused due to inflation, as well as steep hikes to power and insurance expenditures.

Under those circumstances, she said it would be irresponsible not to utilize those funds to aid the district and to put projects on hold that weren’t vital to operations, in spite of raised safety concerns.

“The fiscal reality is that we had money in a non-lapsing account, that we can’t just sit on and wait and see what our budget is. We have to be proactive with that money. And if there are projects, that while they’re necessary, can wait in light of the extraordinary circumstance we now find ourselves in, the likes of which I haven’t seen in 15 years on the board, we have to do something proactively,” said Clark.

Though Democrats wanted to host another workshop to discuss the budget, Clark noted that the time constraints made it an extremely difficult option to consider — as the Town Charter requires the budget to be approved by Feb. 1.

“Even if we were to call a special meeting, to try to squeeze everything in by Feb. 1 would be extremely difficult. That is why this is painful, and I totally understand that. It is very painful to have to bring down the budget to this degree. But the reality is waiting and waiting is not going to change the fact that we have to present a budget to the town,” she said.

Republican Vice Chair Joseph Baczewski also defended his party’s approach to the budget, saying it was a necessary step to slim the budget.

“I think what this budget portrays is that we’re all in. We’ve looked at absolutely everything. It would be nice to have non-lapsing funds to be able to apply to certain things, certain safety and security things, but at the end of the day what’s more important to me is having actual staff in the buildings with our students. Rather than whether a door has to be checked periodically or whether they have to walk a little bit around the building,” Baczewski said at the meeting.

Parties agree on need for funding

Some members of the public argued that the budget as it stands is generally over-inflated. Members of both parties disagreed, saying that education in town is underfunded.

Despite increases in budget, the schools have largely been operating with few new projects or staff increases since the pandemic — while maintaining quality education for the students and making wages competitive with surrounding districts.

“We’re fairly lean-staffed and fiscally responsible,” Superintendent Steven Madancy said. “And I think the challenge of people saying we’re overstaffed or overfunded without knowing what our staffing levels look like in action against the services we provide might be short-sighted.”

Members of both parties also commended Madancy for his work on making the budget as lean as possible while still being able to maintain quality education in the schools. He plans to host an open forum with members of the public in February to discuss the budget, what it means for the coming year, and what residents want to see going forward.

Lingering concern

Despite the discussions in the board meeting, Democratic members remained largely displeased with how the presentation of the new budget was handled, and remain concerned about what it means for the financial state of the district in the coming years as well as what the cutbacks in non-lapsing funds mean for the priorities of the other members.

“We’ve always said safety is our number one priority in the district. Apparently, it’s not for some people,” Oshana said.

The five Republicans present at the meeting voted to approve the budget, which will now be sent to the Town Council and Board of Finance.


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