Schools Take Big Budget Hit; More to Come?

Members of the Branford Board of Finance voted on 2014-15 school and town department budget recommendations, cuts, and changes at a special meeting on March 24.

Last week, the Board of Finance (BOF) sliced back the requested increase to the schools budget by nearly $300,000, taking a requested 2.65 percent annual increase down to 2.1 percent.

The entire 2014-'15 town budget as decided by the BOF on March 24 now heads to committees of the Representative Town Committee (RTM) for further review-and possibly further cuts-before a final budget is adopted in May.

Last year, the RTM final budget vote allowed a two percent year-to-year increase for the education budget. On April 7, the RTM Education Committee will hear the schools budget presentation from the Board of Education (BOE) and Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez. The public is also invited to comment at the meeting, said RTM Education Chair Frank Twohill.

"The public is invited to attend, question, and comment. All Branford residents are invited to attend. There will be two public comment periods scheduled on the committee agenda that night, one before the Board of Education presentation and one after the presentation. Capital projects proposed will also be heard," said Twohill.

The meeting is set for Monday, April 7, at 7 p.m. at Branford Fire Headquarters, 45 North Main Street.

On March 24, the BOF set the schools budget request at $52,923,605 and recommended a town departments bottom line of $49,936,289, for a total town budget of $102,859,894. The number represents a three-quarters of a mill increase, to 26.36 mills.

The BOF deliberated between March 17 to 24.

BOF Chairman Joseph Mooney said the BOF had reached a "consensus" that the town's schools could operate and meet obligations with a 2.1 percent increase in spending next year-an additional $1.07 million dollars.

The BOE was seeking $1.35 million in increased spending. Now, the BOE will need to make cuts where it sees fit to meet the $280,076 reduction made by the BOF.

BOF member Charles Shelton noted that, with capital expenses added in, education spending "occupies about 58 percent of the budget, leaving 42 percent for the town side. That's always a struggle because we want to give the best opportunity and services to our kids in the school system, but we have to look at the other side as well. We know that last year, [the schools] got a two percent increase and they were able to manage their budget. The increase is greater than they had last year; and I think with all the talent with the administration and on the BOE, they can manage to find the operational money within their budget and make this thing work. On the other side [we have] people on fixed incomes, people on modest incomes, and people looking for income. I look at it as my job to balance this out-what can we afford to pay to give kids best opportunity possible, and on the tax side, what can people afford to pay?"

BOF member Kurt Schwanfelder added that, while a lot of factors must be weighed with regard to what's needed to properly educate each child and to upkeep school facilities, the schools serve "10 percent of the population," while "needing almost 60 percent of the budget."

First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove said he felt the BOF decision allowed for a "reasonable increase" for the town's schools and that he was confident the BOE would continue to responsibly fund its liabilities and medical benefits.

"It's a balance, but I think we also are taking an approach that we're trying to balance this out over multiple years," said Cosgrove. "The town is working to make the commitments to make significant investments in our facilities and our infrastructure and we're positioning ourselves to do that by being responsible in funding our liabilities, both on the town side and the Board of Education side."

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