By Robert D. Utter
NORTH STONINGTON – By the time the Board of Finance meeting was over on Wednesday night, Feb. 19th, the members had all of the working pieces of next year’s fiscal plan in piles in front of them. The Board of Education and the Board of Selectmen had presented their own puzzle pieces officially, and for the next 12 weeks, the finance board will sort the hundreds of requests and turn them into a set of numbers representing their best hopes for the town.
The Milltown Monitor will be following the finance board’s deliberations for the duration.
Meanwhile, this is the state of the 2020-2021 budget today.
Actually, it’s bottom lines. The budget will most likely be presented to the town’s voters in palatable parts – a school operating budget, a town operating budget, an amount to cover the town’s debts from borrowing to pay for new emergency services buildings and new schools, and a large-item or capital budget.
The education board has requested $14,450,357 to run the schools, an increase over the current year of $674,894 or 4.9 percent.
The selectmen have asked the finance board to consider funding $5,283,929 to run the town, an increase of $275,830 or 5.5 percent.
The debt service is up to $1,204,204, an increase of $139,020 or 13.1 percent.
Capital requests total $466,175, an increase of $38,349 or 9.0 percent.
Putting it all together, the finance board is looking at $21,404,665 in requests, an increase of $1,128,093 or 5.6 percent.
On the revenue side
As if requests for 5.6 percent greater spending was not enough for the finance board to work on, projected income, or revenues, are expected to fall short of budget requests by $1,260,899, a shortfall of 5.9 percent. In fact, revenue for next year is projected to be $135,527 less than the current year.
And while the town will be receiving funds from the state, the amounts and timelines are somewhat up in the air due in part to the impasse between Gov. Ned Lamont and the Connecticut legislature – they have not been able to agree to levy the new highway tolls the governor has requested.
The education piece
The education board’s spending requests makeup 67.5 percent of town’s total. Contributing to the 4.9 percent increase in school requests are a 4.6 percent increase in medical insurance, an 11.4 percent increase in the cost of school transportation, a 26.5 percent jump in the cost of electricity, a 54.6 percent increase in the request for building and grounds maintenance.
But those are just isolated numbers. The context is what matters.
In her presentation to the finance board, Christine Wagner, education board chair, recounted some of the many successes of the past year.
The 6th grade has been fully integrated back into the elementary school.
The state has designated the elementary school a School of Distinction, ranked 28th out of 522 elementary schools in Connecticut.
The middle school was ranked 29th out of the 259 middle schools.
The high school is now a School of Choice and was ranked 19th out of the121 high schools.
Wheeler High School made successful presentations to the towns of Preston and Voluntown this past month and is getting positive feedback from parents and students in those towns. Wheeler is hoping to attract as many as 40 tuition-paying students in the coming years.
Wagner said the district has done much to earn respect from the town.
“It’s been a nice first year (at the new high school),” Wagner said. “The students are so proud that the town invested in them.” She also noted that “all of the students that were out-of-district came back” because of the new school.
“The Board of Education feels the budget we are putting forth is the very best we could do,” Wagner said. She pointed out that the community’s support of programs “has not been keeping up” as budgets are cut year after year.
“We don’t want to run a shell,” she said. “At some point, we have to put investment back into our investment. We can’t continue to Band-aid it.”
The board is requesting funding for 60 to 80 new computers. School computers are nearly obsolete, five to nine years old. “Last year, we were unable to fund any technology,” Wagner said. “We’re setting ourselves up for disaster.” In fact, required state testing must be done on computers “and that’s becoming problematic,” she said.
“We’re only replacing the on-Death’s-door equipment,” she added.
To try to bring down the cost of transportation, the education board is putting together a parent group to study the issue and make recommendations.
The 54.6 percent jump in the buildings and grounds request is mostly because the elementary school has been closed for a year and maintenance must start up again.
Likewise, custodial supplies is seeing a bigger ask because the elementary school will require all new dispensers, like for paper towels, as well as the supplies for them.
The finance board meets again on Wednesday, Feb. 26.
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