Selectmen pass budget, recommend $460,000 school cut

Recommending a cut of close of half a million on a roughly $98-million school budget, the Board of Selectmen finished up their work on 2019-20 budget Wednesday, March 6. 
The selectmen unanimously approved a $38,318,807 budget for town departments — the 0% increase they’d been working on. They also approved a $4,525,570 capital budget for major projects and purchases for both schools and town departments— capital spending to be paid for with borrowing in the bond market — as well as $11,315,116 for next year’s debt service payment on past borrowing.
On the school operating budget requested by the Board of Education (BOE), the selectmen make only a non-binding recommendation to the Board of Finance. The Board of Selectmen voted 4-to-1 to suggest a $460,000 cut to the Board of Education’s request would lower the proposed school budget from the school board’s requested $98,423,760 to the selectmen’s recommended $97,963,760.
One of the selectmen’s goals in recommending the cut was to keep within the school budget — with special education spending excluded — within the 2.5% increase limit mandated for municipalities’ budgets by the state legislature a couple of years ago. The state’s 2.5% limit specifies that certain categories of spending, including special education and also debt service, are excluded from 2.5% calculation.
School board chairwoman Margaret Stamatis said discussion of the selectmen’s recommendation would be on the agenda of the school board’s meeting Monday, March 11.
“I don't know what, if any, action the board may decide to take as a result of the non-binding recommendation —that will be determined in the meeting,” Stamatis said. “I do know that the administration is aware of the recommendation and continuing to consider where they could find possible reductions to the BOE proposed budget if needed.”
Selectman Bob Hebert calculated that the recommended school reduction would bring the projected mill rate increase needed to support next year’s budget down from a 3.14% to a 2.79% tax hike. That is assuming the finance board makes no adjustments to spending or to revenue —including any potential use of money from the town’s roughly $14 million fund balance as non-tax revenue.
The selectmen’s town budget and school board’s requested budget, as well as the capital budget proposal, must all go to the Board of Finance for review. The finance board’s proposed 2019-20 budget package will then go to voters in May at the annual town meeting and the budget referendum.
Town job reductions
The selectmen felt that with all the reductions they’d made to the town budget — including a reorganization that meant the loss of some job positions, as well as some incentivized retirements — it made sense to recommend a cut the 3.6% increase sought by the school board.
In the reorganization the selectmen have been working on for months, savings have been found in the Highway Department, Assessor’s Office, Parks and Recreation Department, Town Engineer’s office, Building Department, Mapping Department, Tax Collector’s office, and in administrative positions in the Police Department and Fire Department, according to First Selectman Rudy Marconi.
“We’re cutting to the bone,” Hebert said of decisions the selectmen made to keep town departments at a 0% increase. 
So, the schools should also do some cutting, he said.
“In a $98 million budget with an about $3.5 million increase,” he said of the school board’s request, “...I just can’t believe they can’t find some efficiencies to help us out.”
New School Superintendent William Collins talked to the selectmen about the budget Tuesday night, March 5, and they were impressed with both the clarity of the budget documents and the directness of Collins’ answers to questions.
“I really want to commend the Board of Education and the new business manager and superintendent for putting together a budget we could all understand,” said Hebert.
The selectmen and top school administrators discussed ways school operations could be made more efficient over time, including some talk of the town and schools possibly running the bus transportation system, rather than paying a for-profit bus contractor — something Collins oversaw at a school district he’s previously worked at.
“I want to give the superintendent and his team an opportunity to find the efficiencies we talked about,” Hebert said. “...I’m really excited about the buses.”
The dissenter in the selectmen 4-to-1 vote to recommend a $460,000 reduction to the school budget was Selectman Steve Zemo
“I want the message to be we’re supporting education,” he said.
Zemo said the real estate market was slow, and a cut to the school board’s request wouldn’t help. 
“I don’t want that to be what tips the balance to a young couple not moving here,” he said.
School board’s efforts
Stamatis said school officials were aware of the selectmen’s aggressive effort to reduce the town departments’ budget, and had undertaken similar efforts on the school side to reduce their budget increase from initial requests approaching 6% to the 3.6% increase proposal that was passed on to the selectmen and finance board.
“...The BOE is appreciative of the Board of Selectmen’s thoughtful consideration of our approved budget and of our capital requests,” Stamatis said. 
“We know that they worked hard to achieve their target of 0% increase. The school administration also worked hard to contain cost increases and made tough choices —the initial request from buildings and departments was a 5.76% increase. 
“Additionally, we did discuss the option of an early retirement incentive during our January budget committee meeting, but found that it would not yield significant savings for us given the age of our workforce. Like the town, we did eliminate positions (a full team at East Ridge Middle School),” she said. 
“We also had a successful negotiation with the teacher’s bargaining unit this fall that included a plan design change for the teacher’s health benefits that included managed care type elements designed to hold down the growth in health insurance premium costs for the district.”
State factors
An uncontrollable factor the selectmen discussed as underlying their recommendation for a school cut was the still-developing plan in Hartford to save the state money by having towns share in the cost of teacher retirement pensions currently covered by the state.
“The teacher retirement seems to be alive — not a lot of opposition,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi, who’d been to Hartford to testify on various bills. 
Marconi distributed documents from the state office of fiscal analysis showing Ridgefield schools had $43.6 million in “pensionable salary” for some 469 certified educators. Ridgefield teachers’ average salary of $92,999 is 18% above the state median, according to the documents, and Ridgefield’s “proposed contribution” to teacher pension costs was projected at $458,602 in 2019-20, $947,057 in 2020-21 and $1,435,512 in 2021-22.
Those are projections concerning bills that haven’t even passed the legislature yet, but they did serve affirm the selectmen’s concern that some potentially sizable teacher pension costs will likely be passed down from the state to the towns — costing town taxpayers.
The selectmen expressed similar concerns about Gov. Ned Lamont’s idea to have the state claim automobile taxes that currently go to towns.
“For us it would be approximately $8.1 million,” Marconi said.
“Revenue lost,” said Selectwoman Barbara Manners.
“His proposal is the state would collect it, and redistribute it according to need,” Marconi said. “We all know where that leaves us.”
The finance board has a public hearing on the budget set for Monday, March 25, with work sessions scheduled Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, March 26 , 27 and 28. 
The school budget is expected to be the focus on Thursday, March 28. If needed there would further work session the following week.