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Ledyard - Following outspoken criticism of an 8 percent tax rate hike at Monday's public hearing of next year's spending plan, the Town Council voted Wednesday to reduce the Board of Education budget by $500,000.
The result would be a tax rate hike of 1.75 mills, or 6 percent. While still high, said Finance Committee Chairman Mike France, 6 percent is a "more reasonable" increase for taxpayers. After the cuts are finalized, residents will vote on a $52,683,926 budget, comprised of a $22,454,064 general government budget and a $30,229,862 schools budget.
The Town Council grudgingly approved these changes in a 7-to-1 vote Wednesday night, with several councilors voicing opposing concerns that echoed those from the public hearing: Taxes are too high, but the school budget is too low.
Councilor Steve Eichelberg was the lone "no" vote. But other councilors shared his sentiment before giving their approval and urged voters to bite the bullet and do the same.
Councilors Bill Saums and Lou Gabordi agreed that even before this latest request, the cuts over the years to the education budget have been too steep, resulting in too many students in study hall, leaving teachers in charge of six instead of the average five class periods a day, and necessitating cuts to graduation requirements at Ledyard High School.
If voters are opposed these cuts, Saums said, he is "with (them) all the way." But he also had words for those who still think it's not enough.
"I want you to consider what our teachers are already doing for our kids," he said.
Gabordi repeated what many taxpayers had to say Monday - that such a jump in taxes could have been avoided if the town had made incremental increases rather than piling on a large one all at once.
Mayor John Rodolico, who originally drafted a budget that was $135,000 higher on the general government side, had the harshest critique, calling the budget "not acceptable." He warned that if changes are not made, every budget year going forward will be just as difficult, and Ledyard will become an unaffordable place to live.
Rodolico called for systemic changes going forward between this budget season and the next, urging that the town move further toward shared services, the use of electronics and the creation of more flexible Town Hall positions.
"We cannot sustain government in Ledyard if we continue in the form it is in now," he said.
The Board of Education's Finance Committee will be charged with cutting $495,000, while Mayor John Rodolico will look for an additional $123,000 to cut from the general government budget. Rodolico said the cuts will come largely from capital accounts, road maintenance costs and pensions.
Gordon Strickland, chairman of the school board's Finance Committee, said late Wednesday that the budget reduction will likely mean cuts to, among other things, sports and extracurricular activities, and remedial support - tutors and paraprofessionals.
The school board in December reduced the hours of more than 100 paraprofessionals in an effort to plug a projected $116,000 deficit in the school budget.
Faced with having to make such a large reduction to the school budget proposal, "You decide on programs you can do without as opposed to chipping away at a lot of things," Strickland said. "We'll make it work."