Published March 20. 2014 4:00AM
Stonington - The Board of Finance slashed two-thirds of the proposed $1 million increase in the 2014-15 school budget proposal Wednesday night as members finalized a budget to send to an April 10 public hearing.
School officials now have to find ways to reduce their budget proposal of $34 million by $663,213, an amount that surprised school board Chairman Frank Todisco.
"This is a huge number. It's going to be devastating to our district," he said after the board made its decision.
Todisco said Superintendent Van Riley will now come up with a list of items that will have to be eliminated and present it to the board when it meets on March 27.
The cut will involve reduction in staff and sports as almost all of the original increase was due to increases in employee raises, health insurance, fuel, electricity and special and magnet school education costs, Todisco said.
The school board had already eliminated eight teaching positions through attrition as well as positions for five paraprofessionals and one computer technician.
With the school budget now at $34 million and the general government budget at $18.3 million, the overall budget proposal now stands at $58.2 million, which is 0.5 percent, or $304,999, more than the current budget. It would increase the tax rate by 0.49 mills, to 20.37 mills.
On Wednesday night, the finance board also cut slightly more than $1 million in school-related capital improvements, many of which were security upgrades in the wake of the Newtown shootings.
Finance board Chairman John O'Brien told school officials they could put the items into a bonding package to be approved by voters separate from the budget.
The finance board also cut $513,000 from the general government budget. Among the many cuts were eliminating increases for outside agencies, $87,000 to fill the long-vacant director of planning position and $56,000 to fill a police officer vacancy. First Selectman Ed Haberek announced that he and Selectmen George Crouse and Glee McAnanly would be forgoing their raises in 2014-15.
The finance board began the night with a goal of a tax rate hike of 0.49 mills, which will be the largest increase in the past six years. This year's increase was 0.35 mills.
"This is not a budget that will make anyone happy, but we have to get there," O'Brien said Wednesday as the board began making reductions.
He explained later that he had polled board members and they had agreed that 0.49 mills was an increase that voters would approve. Acknowledging that guessing what voters will approve is an "imperfect science," O'Brien said even a 0.6-mill hike would have been too much and been rejected by voters.
He and board member June Strunk said the board had to look at factors such as that Social Security benefits are only increasing 1.4 percent in a town where there is a large number of elderly residents on a fixed income.