Finance board wrestles with Preston school budget

Preston - The Board of Finance Monday approved a $3.3 million 2014-15 town government budget and an $11.2 million school budget with a 0.37-mill tax increase that members said will show taxpayers that a 5 percent increase in the school budget "costs something."

The budgets were approved after the finance board made minor adjustments to the proposed town budget and reluctantly agreed to send the requested $11,192,090 million proposed school budget to the April 10 budget public hearing, to be held at 7:30 p.m. at Preston Veterans' Memorial School. The Board of Finance will hold a special meeting after the hearing possibly to make further budget changes before the budget town meeting May 1.

Board members voted several times on the school budget, expressing objections to the proposal to add full-day universal preschool for all eligible 4-year-old children in town. The preschool program totaled $186,000 in the budget to hire staff and a bus driver for two new preschool classes.

Board of Finance Chairman Jerry Grabarek objected to moving immediately to a full-day program, suggesting the school board should have started with a half-day program. He suggested cutting the school budget by $100,000 to accommodate a half-day program.

Finance board member Andrew Bilodeau said the board should require parents to pay a portion of the costs to enroll in the program. Member David Cannon objected to any pay system, calling it unequal access to education for all town residents.

The board needed two votes to approve sending the full requested school budget to the public hearing.

But the board then voted to reduce the amount of money to be taken from the town's surplus account to offset taxes in order to have a slight tax increase in the coming year. At first, the board proposed using $600,000 to avoid any tax increase, possibly even reducing the tax rate by 0.02 mills to 23.68 mills.

But Grabarek and board member Kenneth Zachem argued that with a 5.4 percent, $569,000 increase in the Board of Education budget, taxpayers should see a tax increase. The town budget increase is only $19,000.

Board member Norman Gauthier supported the full school budget and said the board should use enough of the surplus, $600,000, to avoid any tax increase. Gauthier said with the town surplus fund at $2.2 million - 17 percent of the town's total annual expenses including the town and school budgets, debt services and other costs - the board should keep the tax rate stable at the current 23.7 mills.

The finance board's policy is to keep 9.5 percent of the annual budget - $1.4 million in surplus funds - untouched to keep a good bond rating for the town. Even with that, Gauthier said, the board has enough money available to avoid a tax increase.

"You're putting it at 24.07 mills just to make the Board of Ed look bad," Gauthier said.

Resident Susan Strader, speaking as a teacher at Preston Veterans' Memorial School, echoed that sentiment during the public comment period Monday.

"I'm flabbergasted that you played with the numbers so the Board of Ed can look bad," she said. "There was no reason not to keep the mill rate at 23.68."

c.bessette@theday.com

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