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Budgets' rites of spring

Published April 25. 2014 4:00AM

As parents, students, teachers and school officials all know, to everything there is a season.

Classes start before fall and end around summer, usually with time off for winter vacation and spring break. Baseball, football, basketball, soccer, swimming, lacrosse, tennis, cross-country - all team sports have their seasons, as do proms, graduations, homecoming, final exams, Mastery Tests and countless other activities.

For those connected in any way to schools we now are in the middle of one of the busiest and most important times of year - budget season, when superintendents and school boards outline how they want to spend public money for education, and taxpayers ultimately decide how much they're willing to pay.

Typically, administrators, teachers and parents with young children argue for generous spending while retirees and those on limited, fixed incomes demand fiscal restraint. When the two sides clash fireworks can erupt, and some towns endure months of explosive debate and multiple referendums before the budget finally passes.

So far in southeastern Connecticut, this season appears to be following a familiar give-and-take pattern - with a few surprises.

Earlier this month in Stonington, for instance, a crowd of more than 400 packed a public hearing and demanded the finance board restore $525,000 it previously had cut from the school budget. In past years the finance board often held fast to its reductions, but this year members agreed to put back a little more than half, $270,000. Whether this will satisfy parents or anger fiscal conservatives remains to be seen; a final vote on the town's overall spending plan is still weeks away.

Meanwhile, in Ledyard, after angry residents complained about plans for an 8 percent tax increase Monday, the Town Council voted Wednesday to trim the Board of Education budget by $500,000. If that reduction stands, school officials warn, various sports and extracurricular activities, along with remedial support provided by tutors and paraprofessionals, will have to be curtailed.

In East Lyme Monday, the finance board decided against restoring $550,000 cut from next year's proposed school budget over the objections of parents worried that the town's reputation for education excellence would be damaged. Officials are contemplating a number of options, including closing a school, eliminating teaching positions and cutting back on extracurricular activities.

Contentiousness over school spending has spurred harsh words even in tiny Salem - to the extent that Board of Finance Chairman T.J. Butcher opened a public hearing on the budget earlier this month with a reminder to "please be considerate, please be respectful and treat your neighbors kindly." The board nevertheless did not please many in the crowd of more than 100 people when it approved a $10.5 million school budget instead of the $10.8 million parents wanted.

Similar debates have been taking place at districts throughout the region and will continue to heat up over the next several weeks.

Not long afterward, though, the budgets will be approved, either with or without cuts; schools will let out for the summer and tempers will cool - at least until residents open their tax bills in July.

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