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Preston - Residents Thursday rejected an effort to reduce the proposed school budget by $226,000, with discussion centering on the Board of Education's plan to start full-day preschool in the upcoming school year along with claims that the overall budget was too high.
By a 29-17 vote, residents agreed to send the original proposed school budget totaling $11,192,090 to a referendum on May 13. There was no discussion and unanimous support to send the proposed town government budget of $3,335,464 to the referendum. Residents also voted to extend the hours of the referendum by six hours to 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Town Hall.
Although town meeting moderator and First Selectman Robert Congdon repeatedly reminded residents that they did not control specific expenses within the school budget, such as preschool costs, the preschool program prompted the proposed cut.
Resident Andy Depta made a motion to reduce the school budget by $226,000, estimating that that would be the approximate cost to launch universal preschool for all 4-year-old children in town. Depta said voters did not have any analysis of the cost of the program over time and said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed offering state grants to fund preschool in the future.
Supporters of preschool countered that the program would give 4-year-olds the preparation they need to enter a more rigorous kindergarten program. Danielle Sandoval, a kindergarten teacher in Norwich, said she sees the difference in students who have not attended preschool. Those students start school behind the others, and some never catch up, she said.
Resident William Legler said he supports preschool but not the proposed school budget. Legler said the 5.4 percent $569,854 school budget increase is too high.
"They can still do the pre-K program with the cut," Legler said.
Resident Sean Nugent agreed, saying if the town approves the higher school budget, that amount "becomes the baseline for future budgets."
But after the cut was rejected, no further motions were made to alter the budget.
A third question on the referendum ballot will ask for residents' support to place $100,000 into the capital nonrecurring account to cover possible future unanticipated expenses, such as last winter's breakdown of a plow truck. Legler proposed cutting the entire amount, arguing that the healthy surplus of 9.5 percent of the town's annual expenses could cover unanticipated costs.
When that move failed overwhelmingly, Nugent suggested cutting $80,000 from the account. That too failed overwhelmingly, sending the full $100,000 proposed capital nonrecurring amount to the referendum.
Board of Finance member Norman Gauthier said the capital nonrecurring fund would allow the town to purchase some items without the need for bonding with interest payments. He called the fund "fiscally responsible" and said any future expenditure from the fund would have to be approved by residents at a town meeting.