New Milford finance, town and school officials discuss budget
NEW MILFORD — Town and school officials were focused on special education, pay to play and state funding uncertainty at a recent budget workshop.
The workshop — one of several the Town Council and finance board are holding to dive into the different components of the mayor’s proposed $103.4 million budget — comes on the heels of a proposed cut to the school budget, yet little was said about that suggested cut.
Mayor Pete Bass’s spending plan would cut the school’s budget request nearly $249,000, bringing the total to $64.4 million, which is about $1.38 million, or 2.2 percent, more than this year’s budget.
The school board already cut $423,000 from the superintendent’s proposal. Several big ticket items were removed, including capital projects, an assistant principal at Sarah Noble Intermediate School, two teaching positions and the addition of a director of curriculum and instruction.
Even with the cuts, the school budget would lead to an increase of $1.4 million, or 1.35 percent, in the overall 2019-2020 budget. The town budget is $8,500 less than the current budget and comes in at about $39 million.
Officials also expressed concern about a possible revenue cut from the state as last year’s $2 million shortfall in state funding was still fresh in everyone’s minds.
School Board Chairman David Lawson said they would work with the town to close the gap like last time through hiring and spending freezes. He said it wouldn’t be passed on to the taxpayer.
This year, for the first time, the school and town budgets will be independent in the referendum. The two budgets will still be voted on separately, but because of the recent charter revisions, only the budget that gets shot down will be changed. Previously, both the town and school budgets would go back to the Town Council for changes if only one failed.
The three governing bodies recently spent two hours asking and answering questions, most of which centered on fixed costs, such as special education — one of this year’s budget drivers.
Special education services account for about 22 percent of the budget. About 14 percent of the student population get special education services, which the district is required by law to offer. Of these students, 33 are outplaced this year, which can range from $50,000 to $200,000 for tuition and doesn’t factor in the transportation costs. That number is expected to climb to 38 next year.
Officials said they’ve done a lot to bring students back in district, including an emotional support program at the high school.
The budget also includes money for a new special education supervisor, who will oversee the special education programs at the K-5 levels to help. There is only a special education supervisor at the high school right now.
Lawson said districts all over are seeing high special education costs.
“We’re better at diagnosing and we’re better at treatment,” he said.
Transportation, utilities and personnel are all other fixed costs that are causing the increase.
School officials said they aren’t as competitive on salaries for teachers who have been in the district for a number of years and those teachers are leaving for surrounding districts where they can get $15,000 to $30,000 more. This budget includes a 3 percent raise.
Another popular topic was removing pay to play — a budgeted $110,000 in revenue — though the actual amount was closer to $64,000 due to reducing the fees and not as many students participating. Officials said they were happy it wasn’t in the budget this year because it caused some students to not play sports.
“I was never in favor of pay to play,” Councilman Doug Skelly said. “I think it targets a specific group of people and it’s not fair.”