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.\u00a0The selectmen unanimously approved a $38,318,807 budget for town departments \u2014 the 0% increase they\u2019d been working on. They also approved a $4,525,570 capital budget for major projects and purchases for both schools and town departments\u2014 capital spending to be paid for with borrowing in the bond market \u2014 as well as $11,315,116 for next year\u2019s 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\u2019s request would lower the proposed school budget from the school board\u2019s requested $98,423,760 to the selectmen\u2019s recommended $97,963,760.One of the selectmen\u2019s goals in recommending the cut was to keep within the school budget \u2014 with special education spending excluded \u2014 within the 2.5% increase limit mandated for municipalities\u2019 budgets by the state legislature a couple of years ago. The state\u2019s 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\u2019s recommendation would be on the agenda of the school board\u2019s meeting Monday, March 11.\u201cI don't know what, if any, action the board may decide to take as a result of the non-binding recommendation \u2014that will be determined in the meeting,\u201d Stamatis said. \u201cI 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.\u201dSelectman Bob Hebert calculated that the recommended school reduction would bring the projected mill rate increase needed to support next year\u2019s 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 \u2014including any potential use of money from the town\u2019s roughly $14 million fund balance as non-tax revenue.The selectmen\u2019s town budget and school board\u2019s requested budget, as well as the capital budget proposal, must all go to the Board of Finance for review. The finance board\u2019s proposed 2019-20 budget package will then go to voters in May at the annual town meeting and the budget referendum.Town job reductionsThe selectmen felt that with all the reductions they\u2019d made to the town budget \u2014 including a reorganization that meant the loss of some job positions, as well as some incentivized retirements \u2014 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\u00a0have been found in the Highway Department, Assessor\u2019s Office, Parks and Recreation Department, Town Engineer\u2019s office, Building Department, Mapping Department, Tax Collector\u2019s office, and in administrative positions in the Police Department and Fire Department, according to First Selectman Rudy Marconi.\u201cWe\u2019re cutting to the bone,\u201d Hebert said of decisions the selectmen made to keep town departments at a 0% increase.\u00a0So, the schools should also do some cutting, he said.\u201cIn a $98 million budget with an about $3.5 million increase,\u201d he said of the school board\u2019s request, \u201c...I just can\u2019t believe they can\u2019t find some efficiencies to help us out.\u201dNew 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\u2019 answers to questions.\u201cI really want to commend the Board of Education and the new business manager and superintendent for putting together a budget we could all understand,\u201d 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 \u2014 something Collins oversaw at a school district he\u2019s previously worked at.\u201cI want to give the superintendent and his team an opportunity to find the efficiencies we talked about,\u201d Hebert said. \u201c...I\u2019m really excited about the buses.\u201dThe dissenter in the selectmen 4-to-1 vote to recommend a $460,000 reduction to the school budget was Selectman Steve Zemo.\u00a0\u201cI want the message to be we\u2019re supporting education,\u201d he said.Zemo said the real estate market was slow, and a cut to the school board\u2019s request wouldn\u2019t help.\u00a0\u201cI don\u2019t want that to be what tips the balance to a young couple not moving here,\u201d he said.School board\u2019s effortsStamatis said school officials were aware of the selectmen\u2019s aggressive effort to reduce the town departments\u2019 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.\u201c...The BOE is appreciative of the Board of Selectmen\u2019s thoughtful consideration of our approved budget and of our capital requests,\u201d Stamatis said.\u00a0\u201cWe 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 \u2014the initial request from buildings and departments was a 5.76% increase.\u00a0\u201cAdditionally, 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),\u201d she said.\u00a0\u201cWe also had a successful negotiation with the teacher\u2019s bargaining unit this fall that included a plan design change for the teacher\u2019s health benefits that included managed care type elements designed to hold down the growth in health insurance premium costs for the district.\u201dState factorsAn 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.\u201cThe teacher retirement seems to be alive \u2014 not a lot of opposition,\u201d said First Selectman Rudy Marconi, who\u2019d been to Hartford to testify on various bills.\u00a0Marconi distributed documents from the state office of fiscal analysis showing Ridgefield schools had $43.6 million in \u201cpensionable salary\u201d for some 469 certified educators. Ridgefield teachers\u2019 average salary of $92,999 is 18% above the state median, according to the documents, and Ridgefield\u2019s \u201cproposed contribution\u201d 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\u2019t even passed the legislature yet, but they did serve affirm the selectmen\u2019s concern that some potentially sizable teacher pension costs will likely be passed down from the state to the towns \u2014 costing town taxpayers.The selectmen expressed similar concerns about Gov. Ned Lamont\u2019s idea to have the state claim automobile taxes that currently go to towns.\u201cFor us it would be approximately $8.1 million,\u201d Marconi said.\u201cRevenue lost,\u201d said Selectwoman Barbara Manners.\u201cHis proposal is the state would collect it, and redistribute it according to need,\u201d Marconi said. \u201cWe all know where that leaves us.\u201dScheduleThe 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.\u00a0The school budget is expected to be the focus on Thursday, March 28. If needed there would further work session the following week.