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On April 10, the North Branford Town Council discusses budget adjustments ahead of its 6-3 vote to recommend a $51.33 million budget with a 0.11 mill rate decrease. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Party-Line Vote Flatlines Requested Education Increases for 2018-19
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By a 6-3 vote along party lines, North Branford's Republican-led Town Council is putting forward a $51.33 million Town Budget that would reduce the mill rate by 0.11 mills; meaning residents won't see a tax increase next year. With that recommendation, the annual Budget Referendum Question vote is set to take place at the town's two polling places on Tues. May 8.
Largely by denying a requested $1.3 million schools increase next year, the council's recommended town budget whittled down a proposed $53.04 million bottom line that would have created a mill increase of 1.46 mills, or a 4.4 percent tax increase.
The 6-3 split vote was due to all three Democratic council members taking a stand against the GOP majority's choice to keep education spending flat next year. GOP leaders said declining enrollment and a trend of zero to low school spending increases in other towns show that North Branford's school system can stay competitive while keeping its budget at $30.99 million, a zero percent annual increase. Democrats on the council said the zero increase will cause the district to have to find money to pay for for contractual obligations by cutting funds which will impact student learning.
Prior to the final vote to recommend the $51.33 million budget, the council was in consensus on town government spending changes proposed by the GOP-led council, including unanimous votes to cut proposed capital spending by $500,000, while reducing some other requests by department in order to shift monies for a recommended Town Government budget of $15.14 million, up 3.56 percent over last year. The changes voted in on April 10 allow the new budget to include one full-time police officer, a part-time Economic Development Coordinator, a seasonal Parks and Recreation ranger and two Public Works full time positions.
But the council was clearly at odds when it came to discussing the GOP-proposed flatlining to the Board of Education (BOE) budget. The BOE had requested the council approve a $32.38 million 2018-19 schools budget, a 4.48 percent spending increase.
At the Town Council's April 3 town budget presentation/public hearing, Superintendent Scott Schoonmaker and Schools Finance and Personnel Director Don Winnicki discussedthe 4.48 percent increase request as being due to increases of 2.43 percent for salaries, 1.18 percent for benefits, .037 percent for special education tuition and .33 percent for utilities. They also noted the town's schools required at least a 3.85 percent increase to maintain "status quo" next year – keep all current staff and programs.
COUNCIL DISCUSSION ON EDUCATION BUDGET
On April 10, councilman Al Rose (R) made the motion to keep the school's 2018-19 budget bottom line "flat" (same as 2017-18) at $30,998,053. By state statute, a municipality's finance board can reduce a district's overall operational expense budget but can't direct line-item cuts (line-item cuts are made at the discretion of the BOE).
In discussing Rose's motion, councilman Joseph Faughnan (D) emphasized, "...to be absolutely clear on this, you're proposing a zero increase. That's unprecedented."
Democratic councilman George Miller asked of Rose, "Let me just be clear. There were negotiated increases along the way, and this doesn't fund them. This requires they fund them out of their operation" expenses.
"That's what you're saying," responded Rose.
"I believe that's what your saying," said Miller.
"I'm saying that they have plenty of money; and that's what I'm putting the motion out there for," answered Rose.
Council member Marie Diamond (D) asked if the cut took into consideration a $300,00 Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) state grant. Town Finance Director Anthony Esposito noted the town doesn't have the figures yet on what the ECS number will be.
The council then voted 6-3 in favor of recommending a $30.99 million education budget for 2018-19. All Republican council members voted in favor, including Rose, Mayor Michael Doody, Deputy Mayor Rose Marie Angeloni and councilmen Anthony Candelora , Robert Viglione and Thomas Zampano. Voting against were Democrats Diamond, Faughnan and Miller.
Miller took one more opportunity to discuss zeroing out the school budget increase; by calling for discussion following Angeloni's motion to approve a recommended $51,333,751 2018-19 Town Budget with a 0.11 mill rate decrease and a new mill rate of 33.40 mills.
"We're already spending a very low amount on education as relative to towns in this area," said Miller, adding, "We're lowering this budget on the backs of our children; and we're creating a town that's more-inward looking and celebrating a system with its own collapse to get a low tax rate."
Regarding cost per pupil, Miller had referenced North Branford as being among the some of the lowest in spending of 169 towns in the state. According to the minutes of the March 22 Town Council budget workshop discussing the proposed BOE budget, Superintendent Scott Schoonmaker answered a question from Mayor Mike Doody regarding the cost per pupil by noting North Branford/Northford is listed as 120th among the state's 169 towns when it comes to lowest education cost per student. In terms of those costs, a handout Schoonmaker had prepared for the council on April 10 showed North Branford's net expenditure per pupil in 2017 was $15,602; below the state average of $16,591. North Branford was only a few dollars ahead of East Haven ($15,596 per student) and about $300 behind North Haven ($15,941) but averaged between $1,000 to $3,000 less in spending per pupil when compared to other area towns, including Branford ($17,978), Wallingford ($17,070), Clinton ($17,978), Madison ($18,094), Guilford ($18,378), Hamden ($18,786) and Regional District 13 ($18,956).
On April 10, with no other discussion following councilman Miller's statement; the council voted 6-3 to recommend the budget, with all Reublican members in favor and all Democratic members opposed. The council's recommended budget next goes to a townwide Budget Referendum Question vote on Tues. May 8. Registered voters can vote to approve the budget or reject it as too high or too low. By town charter, at least 15 percent of the electorate needs to vote for the results can be actionable by Town Council; otherwise the council's recommended budget is adopted. The town has yet to meet the 15 percent quota but has seen higher numbers at the polls in recent years. Last year's referendum drew one of the highest recent responses -- 8.9 percent of all registered voters -- with the majority opposed to a 4.7 percent tax increase. The 2017-18 tax increase was largely due to the state budget crisis and cuts being imposed on the town.
WEIGHING IN ON THE SCHOOL BUDGET VOTE
Speaking to Zip06/The Sound immediately following the April 10 Town Council budget session and vote, Superintendent Schoonmaker expressed his concerns, while Mayor Doody and councilman Rose underlined some of the reasons weighing into their decisions.
For his part, Schoonmaker said of the council's majority vote, "It's very irresponsible, in a community that already underfunds education. And when you look at the conditions of our buildings -- they're deplorable -- it's amazing what our staff is able to do; what we're able to get out of the limited resources." Schoonmaker especially noted the town's high school building as being in poor condition.
Schoonmaker said he felt supporting the zero-budget increase for schools next year is "...sending a message that's not supporting education."
As for finding money within operating expense to offset anticipated status quo increases, Schoonmaker said, "We don't have anywhere to go. We already do pay-to-play; we lessened the school year by taking away two days -- one day for teachers, one day for professional development. We've done a number of things where we've cut back, and now we're at the breaking point. Do we become the town that eliminates all sports? Because we have to balance the academic piece and then the athletic piece [so] we might have to consider doing that. And that's too bad. You talk about trying to keep kids in your town; but then you get a flatline budget when you know that there are contractual obligations, you know that there are expenses. It's just irresponsible on their behalf. And it's a sad commentary."
Mayor Doody said he had several reasons for feeling comfortable with keeping the school budget at $30.99 million for another fiscal year.
"One of the major reasons in my decision was the schools' student population dropped by 770 students, and possibly another 61 students [next] year will be seeking alternative schools. [Yet] the school budget never goes down. But the population of students continues to decline," said Doody.
The 700-plus enrollment decline is a 10-year differential. According to Connecticut State Department of Education school-level data comparing enrollment levels between 2006-2007 and 2016-17, North Branford's enrollment declined by 600 students in ten years, with a total of 1831 enrolled in 2016-17. Next year, the school district is projecting a total enrollment of 1731 students, a decrease of 43 over the current number of 1774 students (however, there will be an increase in the number of PreK students, due to adding second PreK classroom through a state grant program).
Students in the district attending alternative schools (from special education to magnet schools) have tuition costs paid by the district. Forty-eight students were in alternative programs this school year, said Doody.
"We have to adjust. The taxpayers have to fund that money [together] with all of the state cuts and the declining enrollment in the school system," said Doody.
Asked if he felt the zero increase would impact the quality of student education in North Branford, Doody said there are ways for the school system to reduce and reorganize to save money, such as, "creative funding and creative placement of administrators."
"I think it's coming from the school system to be looking at administrators [and] non-essential support people that they may have to reduce. Some schools have one principal for two schools. Some schools have no vice principal, or one vice principal," said Doody.
Doody also noted that many other towns around the state will be operating with minimal school budget increases next year.
Councilman Rose said the small school budget increases he's seen requested in budgets in towns including Westbrook and Branford was a main reason for making the motion to keep North Branford's schools budget flat next year.
"Westbrook sent to the selectman a .58 increase from the Board of Education and [Branford's superintendent] came in at a .98 percent increase. Branford's came in with the same teachers' union and the same medical benefits; and that's what drives a budget," said Rose.
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