Budget hearings for the New Milford Board of Education occasionally can seem adversarial.

The March 6 session before the Town Council and Board of Finance was such an instance.

New education board chairman Danielle Shook did her best to hold her own, with support from new vice chairman David Littlefield.

"Our $61.6 million budget request represents a 3.32 percent increase over the present year," Shook told the council and Board of Finance. "Ninety percent of that increase is certified and non-certified salaries, medical insurance and workman's comp."

"The mayor's proposed $650,000 cut takes the budget increase to 2.32 percent," Shook continued. "The board will have to work diligently to assure the education of our students is not affected in applying this cut."

"We hope the Town Council can direct us," she added "as to where it feels these cuts can be made to achieve that goal."

Littlefield agreed with Shook.

"The only way to make this $650,000 cut happen will be through staffing cuts, increased class sizes or cutting programs," he said.

Littlefield noted New Milford is among the lowest school districts in the state for per capital student spending.

Children cannot be properly prepared to succeed in the world if such cuts continue, he said.

In response, the Town Council offered little in the way of direction. They buffeted education board member and administration about budgeting practices, from reinstating pay-to-play sports to not adequately funding its capital plan.

"This board wants to balance its budget on the backs of children who want to play sports," councilman Joe Failia said. "What are children suppose to say if their parents can't afford to pay? It's embarrassing."

Councilman Pete Bass had questions for the education representatives, too.

"You say you need new boilers in some of the schools," he said, "have other pressing repair needs, yet you're only funding your capital by $401,960. You tell us 75 percent of the money requested was included in this budget. How do you plan to meet these needs?"

Schools facilities director John Calhoun responded "It typically has been a struggle to fund the capital plan fully because of budget cuts."

"Things do change," he added. "Priorities change and, eventually, money is put in for projects."

One suggestion for reducing future budgets without undermining the students' education was made by councilman Tom Esposito -- a suggestion that would be of little help in meeting the proposed $650,000 cut in the 2014-15 budget.

"We spent 10 months going over a very painful and emotional process on the facilities committee. The conclusion was that John Pettibone School should be closed," Esposito said. "Birthrates are down across the country, especially in the Northeast."

"If we could effectively close John Pettibone," he remarked, "it will help the budgets going forward. It will show people we are looking forward."

Shook defended her board.

"The schools' utilization committee spent 10 months reaching its decision on Pettibone," she responded. "It made its presentation to the Board of Education in June. In December, we had a new board."

"We've had two public hearings since June," she said. "Both times about 40 people attended and all said don't close the school."

Shook said a meeting will be held at the end of March by her board to discuss and consider closing John Pettibone School.

The Town Council's budget deliberations were scheduled Thursday, March 13 at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall.