$10.5 million school budget clears Salem finance board

Salem - Following a tense discussion with school board members, the Board of Finance last week approved a 1.43 percent increase to the proposed 2014-15 school budget.

While the $10.5 million budget would increase the town's tax rate by at least 1.5 mills if approved at an upcoming referendum, school officials said it falls $300,000 short of what is needed to prevent impacting school operations.

Board of Education members now say they have to make "drastic" cuts.

The budget was a compromise between the two boards - the Board of Finance asked the Board of Education to not increase the budget because the grand list only increased by 0.008 percent this year, but the school board said a 4.42 percent increase was necessary due to uncontrollable costs like special education.

"It's a really big decision you have," school board member Margaret Caron told the Board of Finance during its meeting last Thursday, outlining the potential cuts that would occur if the school board did not get the requested $10.8 million. Those included elimination of staff, sports, technology upgrades, a custodian and new textbooks.

She turned to the audience, which included parents who came to support the school, and asked, "People, would you move here if your kids had no sports, no music?"

The resounding answer was no.

But First Selectman Kevin Lyden, who stood up in a moment of frustration to advocate for a tighter budget, had a different question.

He asked people to raise their hands if they thought a 10 percent or 3-mill budget increase - which would occur if the Board of Education got its request - would pass at a referendum. Salem's tax rate is already 30.1 mills.

No hands were raised.

Salem residents will reject a 10 percent increase, said Lyden. And when a budget fails, he said "friction builds through the town. People take sides."

But educators said the question of whether a 3-mill tax hike is worth it to preserve school services should be left to the voters.

"We have a responsibility to the town," said Board of Education Chairman Stephen Buck, who said voters should know what a lower budget will do to the school.

He questioned whether the possibility of creating division in the town meant that "we're not (supposed) to put this on the table?"

At one point, Suzanne Gendron, the parent of a first-grader, became frustrated with the discussion and spoke in favor of the school board's request, telling town officials that the quality of Salem School has already decreased.

"I also feel the basic needs are not being met," said Gendron, who added that she has to pay to supplement the education her son receives at Salem School and regrets building a house in the town.

Board of Finance members maintained that, for their part, they want Salem School to offer the best possible service but believe it can be done for less.

Chairman T.J. Butcher, who has a background working with special education students, said Salem's special education costs are "exorbitant" and could probably be reduced without compromising quality. He also criticized the school's spending on administration.

"Money does not determine the quality of the program," argued Butcher.

And Board of Finance member Janet Griggs, a former member of the Board of Education, told educators that the board wasn't full of "conservative ogres."

"We're not asking you to look at cutting services for kids," explained Griggs. "We're asking you to look creatively" at the budget.

Superintendent Joseph Onofrio said that the Board of Education will hold a special meeting Thursday to discuss shifting some money from its general budget to the capital fund, as suggested by the Board of Finance, and will eventually have to discuss how to prioritize services in light of the reduced budget imposed by the Board of Finance.

"I'm very anxious about how deeply the cuts will affect our pre-kindergarten through grade eight school," said Onofrio. "It's pretty scary."

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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