Published January 22. 2014 4:00AM Updated January 22. 2014 11:15AM
CHESTER - The state Department of Education has notified Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Levy that the 2013-2014 education budget for Chester does not meet the minimum budget requirement (MBR) called for by state statute. Based on the state department's calculations, the school budget for Chester is $41,527 less than the previous fiscal year, thereby making Chester "currently in noncompliance."
There is a section of state statute that, simply stated, says the budget appropriation for education in any town shall not be less than the amount appropriated for education in the prior year. There are exceptions, however, the conditions and the calculations are complicated. Last week the Board of Selectmen held a joint meeting with the Board of Finance and Levy to discuss the issue.
The day after the meeting, Levy said her office will ask for an opinion of the state education department's interpretation of the MBR statute from the school district's attorneys.
"When we receive that interpretation, we will bring it back to the Chester Board of Finance," she said. "The important piece here is that the Board of Finance will comply with state requirements. How we go about that will be determined later down the road. Right now, we are looking for an interpretation of the regulation."
The present town and school budget of $12.3 million is $419,141 less than the previous year's budget. The decrease in expenditures was due in large part to a reduction in education budgets. In turn, these reductions are related to reduced student numbers at the elementary school and, more particularly, John Winthrop Middle School and Valley Regional High School.
The reduced enrollments, however, could not be applied to the state's calculations for the elementary school budget.
In a Nov. 25 memo from Region 4 Business Manager Garth Sawyer to Levy, Sawyer says, "We had correspondence with the state during budget season regarding this issue to make sure we were in compliance...It was determined that as long as the Region 4 overall budget was increasing, even though the Chester share of it was decreasing the calculation for the allowable budgetary decrease due to declining enrollment could be allocated to the elementary school budget...We are now being told...the calculation is set by statute and they have no leeway in the matter."
Levy said the statute and the calculations are "most confusing," as is the Region 4 school district's method for funding education with multiple school board and budget structures.
"We have a unique governance structure. Our elementary school is one district and the regional schools are a separate district," Lavy said. "It's a continuing issue."