Sweeping through their budget work, the Board of Selectmen agreed to go for a 2.5% budget increase and that where they ended up. The $142,492,430 proposed town and school budget the Board of Finance will be going to work on works out to 2.5% more than this year's $139,013,087.

That 2.5% $142 million budget proposal includes $93,517,544 for the school operations — the full 3.48% increase sought by the Board of Education.

For their "non-binding recommendation" on the school budget, the selectmen suggest that the finance board cut the school budget from 3.48% to a 2.5% increase.  If the finance board followed that recommendation, all the combined town and school spending would tally up to 1.87% increase over the current year's budgeted spending.

But the Board of Finance will start it work based not on the selectmen's recommendation but the $93,517,544 school budget request — representing a 3.48% increase — that came directly form the Board of Education.

The selectmen did most of their budget work Tuesday and Wednesday, March 7 and 8, voting on issues and making decisions based on budgets they began reviewing and meeting with department heads on in January.

The $37,452,295 budget for town departments and road work that the selectmen are passing on to the Board of Finance represents a 2.39% increase.  That number includes $35,612,295, a 2.69% increase, for the town departments — police, fire, park and recreation, public works and highways, including support for the library. Also within the 2.39% town increase $37 million budget is $1,840,000 for road repaving and repairs, and ADA infrastructure work — that's down $1,875,000 this year, a -1.87% decrease, which brought the package of spending by town departments down from 2.62% to 2.39%.

The selectmen’s cut to town departments’ spending is expected to include staff reductions of one full-time and two part-time positions.

The size of the overall budget increase was also held down by a projected decline from $12,060,320 to $11,522,591 — for a -4.46% decrease — in debt service payments, which show as a separate line in the town budget.

Last week the selectmen also approved $3,993,000 in capital spending — construction projects and major equipment purchases they expect to pay for with borrowing in the bond market.

All the selectmen’s budget work, and also the school board’s more than $93,517,000 proposed budget — the 3.48% increase request — will be passed on for review, possible adjustment, and approval by the Board of Finance. The finance board will send its recommended town and school budget — and a proposed tax rate — to voters in early May.

The finance board will begin its budget work with a public hearing Monday, March 27.

The selectmen had their most heated debate over their recommendation that the finance board cut the school budget from 3.48% to a 2.5% increase that's a reduction of $884,000 to the Board of Education’s requested increase of $3,143,000. It would mean a school budget of $92.6 million as opposed to the $93.5 million sought by the school board.

While the selectmen’s vote on spending for town departments and capital requests was unanimous, their recommendation that the finance board lower the school spending increase from 3.48% to 2.5% passed narrowly, 3-to-2, on Tuesday night. Selectmen Maureen Kozlark and Barbara Manners advocated the 2.5% and were eventually joined by Bob Hebert, who moved up from his initial preference of recommending that the school budget be held to a 2% increase.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi and Selectman Steve Zemo opposed the 2.5%, advocating that the school increase should be reduced only from 3.48% to 3%.

“Education drives the town,” Marconi said. “It’s the incentive for people to move here.”

No one disagreed with that. But other board members felt they needed to recommend more of a reduction to the school request.

“I think we have to remember last year, the vote — the budget passed by 16 votes,” Kozlark said. “We were lucky the school budget passed last year. It was skin of the teeth, and I think we need to listen to the taxpayers.”

“It’s always difficult,” said Manners. “We all want the best education for our kids. We also need to consider what’s best for the rest of the town.”

‘Control spending’

Hebert only reluctantly abandoned his call on recommending that the finance board reduce the school increase to 2%.

“We have great schools,” he said.

“I look at last year’s increase, 4.99% — $4,295,864,” he said. “This year, 3.48% — $3,143,314.”

That’s coming on a budget already over $90 million, he added.

“That’s about $7.5 million in two years — increases. To me that’s an awful lot of money,” he said.

“And I don’t think we’re serving the town well with our inability to control spending.”

Hebert said was “disappointed” in the budget the school board had approved.

“They need to manage those needs, wants and desires,” he said

“We’re at $19,100 per student,” he said.

“If we keep going at this rate, we’re going to break through to a $100-million school budget in two years.”

What about zero?

Spending critic Ed Tyrrell said both Redding and Wilton school boards had held their budget to 0% increases.

“Both those town had zero last year,” Tyrrell said.

“Money doesn’t make a school system better,” he said. “We should be 2% or lower.”

School board chairwoman Fran Walton said Ridgefield’s enrollment decline was much less steep than had been anticipated.

“I did go check with Redding and Wilton,” she said. “Their numbers are declining much more rapidly.”

Ridgefield’s enrollment decline — less steep than expected — reflected confidence in the schools, she thought.

“We try to provide high-quality education,” she said.

She said Ridgefield’s schools are efficient, compared to others in their District Reference Group (DRG).

“We are the lowest spend per student in DRG A,” Walton said.

“I”m sorry you didn’t want to support the budget we presented.”