The margin of defeat for the proposed 2010-11 school budget at referendum was a scant 93 votes out of nearly 4,600 votes cast.

The impact of that defeat was significant, however, as the New Milford Town Council Monday night slashed $1 million from the total rejected May 18 by the public at the budget referendum.

In a vote that went along party lines, the Republican-dominated council reduced the school budget to $56.9 million -- the same spending level as during the current year and nearly $1.8 million less than requested earlier this year by the Board of Education.

School board chairman Wendy Faulenbach said she can't tell at this time what the ramifications of this reduction will be, but she predicted they will be "severe."

School budget proponents fear this measure will bring a plethora of teacher cuts.

Those supporting the reduction said many New Milford residents are struggling financially and cannot afford budget increases.

"Overall, a reduction down to a zero percent increase is a daunting task when we have contractual obligations that have been in place for years," Ms. Faulenbach observed.

"There is no doubt this is going to be a real challenge," she added.

Republican Town Council member Pete Bass claimed "it's not that people don't want what's best for the kids" but rather that the economic realities of today made the cut in requested spending necessary.

The May 18 referendum attracted a 25 percent voter turnout. A second budget referendum date has been set June 8 at the usual seven polling sites.

The total for the general government side of the budget -- which passed by 770 votes in the first referendum -- was left at $33.5 million by the council.

All six Republican members of the council voted in favor of the $1 million education reduction.

"We need to work together and, if that means making hard choices, that's just a fact of life," Mr. Bass said. "The money's just not there."

The state's looming budget deficit also raised concerns about whether a promised $16 million in state grants would come to the town in 2010-11.

Several council members asked why teachers won't take a pay freeze rather than receiving pay increases of 2 to 2.43 percent -- as agreed to in the NEA contract in October 2008.

Ms. Faulenbach said the school board has been "repeatedly" in discussions with the teachers union since March, attempting to get concessions.

NEA president Kim Patel did not respond to The News-Times' request Tuesday for the union's position on a possible pay freeze.

Retiring New Milford High School teacher Brock Putnam said Monday "there is a major contention on the part of people... that it is the duty of the teachers to give back to the community... givebacks have been frequent within teachers' contracts.

"We have heard the cry of wolf before," Mr. Putnam said. "We cannot afford to listen to the cry, `You need to give back in the second year of this contract.' "