SOUTHINGTON – A finance board member criticized her own and other boards for ignoring spending increase goals and questioned the value of setting targets for the future.
The Board of Finance is setting up workshops to discuss the upcoming fiscal year’s budget. Sue Zoni, a Democratic member running for re-election, said a board committee earlier this year set an education budget increase target that was later increased.
“If we say ‘This is what we want,’ then we vote another way, what’s the point?” Zoni said during Wednesday’s meeting.
Despite telling education leaders that the goal was a 2.5 percent increase, the school budget was proposed with a 4.6 percent hike in spending for the current fiscal year.
“The Board of Education ignored the number,” Zoni said.
Zoni and Republican Tony Morrison voted against the school budget in March. Three Republicans and a Democrat on the finance board approved increasing education spending nearly 3 percent to $98.9 million.
John Leary, finance board chairman and a Republican also running for re-election, said an informal consensus was reached at a budget workshop earlier this year. By the time of the board budget vote a few days later, several Republican board members said they wanted more education spending.
Zoni suspected that party pressure led to higher education spending. Leary said there’s no expectation from party leaders about Board of Finance votes and that members arrive at their own conclusions.
Tentative agreements reached in workshops aren’t an official vote, Leary said. It’s common for finance board members to have conversations with education board members and school officials about the impact of a proposed level of funding during the budget process.
“You have to be able to listen, to respond. You never know where special education is going to land,” Leary said, citing one of the most unpredictable school expenses. “None of that should preclude you from setting an expectation.”
Morrison said the finance board should set expectations whether “they’re ignored or not.”
“Maybe it’ll be different this time,” he said Wednesday.
Not a factory
Education board chairman Brian Goralski said the schools are not “a factory with widgets.” Costs fluctuate, particularly in special education, where the addition of a few students can change the budget.
“We are driven by costs associated with labor contracts, special education needs and services that are required by the schools,” he said. “We are always going to try our best to adhere to their guidelines but we are always focused on maintaining services that are valuable to students.”
Goralski said Zoni, who is running for reelection, was “playing politics.” Goralski is stepping down this year from his position on the school board.
“Sue Zoni every year wants to cut and doesn’t have a rationale for her actions,” he said.
In 2014, the finance board approved a 3.4 percent increase to the school budget in a two-year deal, saying the education system would receive a 2 percent increase in 2015.
In 2015, the board approved a 3 percent increase for the schools. Finance Board member Joseph Labieniec said at the time that the goal of 2 percent “didn’t materialize” and supported the increased spending. Former board member and Democrat Sandra Feld voted against the budget, saying the board should have stuck to its plan of a 2 percent increase.
Zoni said finance board members aren’t critical enough with information provided by the school district.
“They believe everything they’re being told,” she said.