Stonington board restores portion of cuts to proposed school budget

Stonington — The Board of Finance voted 4-2 Monday night to restore $270,000 of the $525,000 it cut from the proposed 2014-15 school budget, despite hundreds of residents urging them to restore the entire amount at last week's public hearing.

Just one board member, Bryan Bentz, suggested restoring the entire amount and letting residents vote on it at the upcoming referendum, echoing many of last week's speakers.

The decision angered those who attended the hearing and Monday's meeting.

"We asked them to give us a chance to pass it, but they said no," parent Sarah Lewandowski said.

After the vote, school board Chairman Frank Todisco said he had thought there was a good chance the finance board was going to restore all the money and let the voters decide.

He said the school board will wait until after the budget referendum to decide how to cut the money.

The finance board originally cut $663,000 from the $1 million school budget increase. That cut was then lowered to $525,000 because of projected savings in health insurance costs.

With the finance board restoring $270,000 and then transferring the state-funded $65,000 magnet school transportation bill out of the school budget, the cut to the original proposed increase now stands at $190,000.

If the finance board's budget were passed, the proposed $34.3 million school budget would increase $539,161.

School officials, however, say they need an increase of $1 million to provide the current level of education because of increases in staff salaries and health insurance, fuel, utilities, special education tuition and other costs.

The finance board also agreed to add $25,000 to the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center budget; $25,000 for seasonal workers to maintain the new fields at the high school; $5,000 more for the Westerly and Mystic & Noank libraries; and $10,000 more for the Stonington Free Library. The three ambulance companies that serve the town would receive an additional $1,000 each.

In total, the board restored $343,000 to the budget, half of which would be taken from the town's approximately $11 million undesignated fund balance to offset the tax increase.

The $58.5 million budget now calls for a 1 percent increase and would raise taxes by 0.55 mills to 20.43.

Todisco said the Monday meeting in which the finance board asked questions about the cost of a teaching position was why he suggested a joint meeting between the school and finance boards, to explain the school system's request before the budget deliberations began.

"We were willing to sit down and talk to them, but they said no," Todisco said.

After the vote, O'Brien said he felt the board had come up with a fair budget that everyone can support. Board members Sandy Grimes and Dudley Wheeler opposed the budget. Grimes did not want a tax increase of more than the originally proposed 0.49 mills, while Wheeler wanted to restore $175,000 to the school budget.

Some residents also were upset that the board did not answer the questions they had posed at last week's hearing.

Finance board Chairman John O'Brien said he would review a transcript of the nearly 3½-hour hearing and would compile a list of answers, which he then would distribute.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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