SOUTHINGTON — Mad, disturbed and surprised were among the words used by school officials to describe their feelings about a small budget increase approved by the Town Council on Monday.
Under the budget, school spending will rise by nearly $300,000 in the 2021-22 fiscal year.
Education officials had wanted more than $2 million more. The Board of Finance cut the request by $400,000. On Monday, council Republicans voted in favor of a budget that further reduced the education request by $1.5 million. That plan was opposed by Democrats.
Board of Education leaders said the $300,000 increase for next year doesn’t meet the contractual wage increases or other fixed increases the school district will face.
“It is socially and fiscally irresponsible to do something like that,” said board member Zaya Oshana Jr., a Democrat. “I don’t know how you can make such a cut like that without asking” about the impact.Plugging the gap with federal money
Republican council members said the town and Board of Education both received more than $4 million in federal pandemic relief funds. Council Democrats, who wanted more money for education, said the federal funds couldn’t be used for operating expenses. Republicans said it could be used for special projects that would free up money for the regular budget.
Sherri Dinello, the school district’s business director, said there is a provision to use the money to maintain salaries. The intention for the money, though, was for districts to “transform” education and gain back ground lost during the pandemic.
Dinello called the council’s vote a “poor decision.” The use of federal funds for operating costs means those costs are pushed off to future years when the money is no longer available. Dinello said it’s use probably means there would be no staff reductions.
“It’s unfortunate that the only way we’re going to be able to balance our budget is to tap into those [federal] funds,” she said. “What it means is the students of Southington are missing out on opportunities we could have had.”
Bob Brown, a board member and Democrat, hoped to hire more school psychologists and counselors to help students cope with the pandemic’s effects.
“We would like to do some mitigating things for our students, to get services, to get social-emotional services for our people,” he said. “That makes it much more difficult to provide some of those services if we’ve got to use that money instead to pay what’s in our operating budget.” No spending plan yet
School officials prepared a plan for dealing with $400,000 less than requested after the finance board’s vote. Dinello said the further changes by the council were a surprise.
School Superintendent Tim Connellan called the school increase a “horrendous cut” — adding only federal money was stopping the district from laying employees off.
“Hopefully people will speak up,” Connellan said of town residents.
During Monday’s council meeting, Republicans said the low budget increases for town and education services was part of a plan to ease taxes on residents feeling the economic effects of the pandemic. The council’s six Republicans supported the budget, while the council’s three Democrats opposed it.
While the tax rate will drop in the upcoming year, revaluation increased the assessment on most homes. The average taxpayer will get a bill that’s $81 higher under the 2021-22 budget approved by the council.