Montville councilors consider merger of finance departments

Montville - The Town Council is exploring the possibility of merging the finance departments of the town and its school district.

The idea was broached Monday at a Finance Committee meeting of the Town Council. The move would not necessarily mean a complete elimination of one department or the other, but would ultimately aim to create savings for taxpayers.

Town Council Chairwoman Candy Buebendorf started discussions on the proposal Monday by saying she was uncertain of what benefits would be created by merging the finance functions.

She did provide the example of the town of Plainville, which recently voted to merge its town and school finance departments despite a meeting in which Democratic members of the Board of Education walked out and refused to vote on the merger.

The school board in New London also recently agreed to merge finance departments, but it still remains early in the transition process and it is unclear how the details will be worked out.

"All I'm looking for is exploration. I've been reading in the past couple of years of other municipalities that are exploring the same thing," Buebendorf said. "In the interest of openness and communication and maybe potential cost savings, it may be an idea worth checking out."

Superintendent of Schools Pamela Aubin and six of the nine Board of Education members attended Monday's meeting. Aubin said she had concerns about the proposal and said the town and the school district already share many services and work cooperatively with each other. She noted the Board of Education would have to approve any merger of the two departments.

Town Councilor Gary Murphy, the council liaison to the Board of Education, said he was not in favor of a consolidation. Rather, he said he would work to circulate more budget data to the council, which would ensure better transparency and better educate residents about the school budget.

The education budget, which accounts for two-thirds of the town's overall spending, was a point of contention during the recent budget cycle.

Some town councilors argued the Board of Education's spending practices were a problem and two criticized five board members for spending $7,164 on a three-day conference in Boston. The council ultimately voted to adopt a $36.6 million spending plan for the town's schools, which called for no increase compared to the 2011-12 budget.

That left the school district to cut nearly $1 million from its budget request. To make its budget goal, the district reduced certified staff by about eight positions, laying off two full-time teachers and a part-time teacher and leaving unfilled two positions covered by stipends as well as three other noncertified jobs.

The Finance Committee agreed Monday to continue discussions on the potential merger.

"I didn't sense this was some head-hunting expedition," Town Councilor Rosetta Jones said. "I thought this was to explore ways to consolidate. I do think it's worthy of exploring. It will put it on the table once and for all."

jeff.johnson@theday.com

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