Groton superintendent seeks budget compromise to spare schools

Superintendent Michael Graner, center, speaks during the meeting of the Groton Town Council with the Groton Board of Education at the Groton Town Hall Anex Wednesday, April 19, 2017.  Seated next to Graner is board member Katrina Fitzgerald, left, and Chair of the Board of Education Kim Watson. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Superintendent Michael Graner, center, speaks during the meeting of the Groton Town Council with the Groton Board of Education at the Groton Town Hall Anex Wednesday, April 19, 2017. Seated next to Graner is board member Katrina Fitzgerald, left, and Chair of the Board of Education Kim Watson. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Groton — Superintendent Michael Graner said Thursday he hopes to reach a compromise with the Town Council to restore half of the $5.2 million education cut, which still would require him to close Pleasant Valley Elementary School and lay off staff, but spare the district additional cuts.

Graner, the Board of Education and council meet at 6:30 p.m. Friday in the Town Hall Annex.

The council started with a budget that would have required a 15.4 percent tax rate hike, mostly because of declines in property values and a proposed state cut in education funding. The town also has less money in reserve than prior years to offset a tax increase.

But the council has since reduced spending by $8 million, including the cut to the schools. Based on reductions so far, Groton's tax rate would increase from 21.73 mills to 22.75 mills, or 4.7 percent, in the fiscal year that begins July 1, Finance Director Cindy Landry said.

That translates into $2,275 of local property taxes owed for every $100,000 of assessed value, or $102 more than the current year.

If half of the school funding were restored — approximately $2.6 million — the tax rate would increase by 8.2 percent instead. That translates into $2,352 of local property taxes owed for every 100,000 of assessed value, or $179 more than the current year. The difference between the two is $77.

Graner said it’s worth it.

"I remain hopeful that the Town Council, when they get the information, both from the school cuts and what a compromise would do to our tax rate, that we would be able to achieve both the town's needs and the school system's needs," he said.

“The basic point is when you take a cut like this, you destabilize the system,” he said. “If we could settle on a compromise, that would bring a huge amount of stability to the system. People would know exactly where they are.”

The compromise would allow the district to restore funding for school-sponsored field trips, middle school sports, testing of students taking advanced-level classes and would eliminate a pay-to-play requirement for high school sports. It also would spare layoffs of teachers at the high school and protect the team teaching structure at the middle school, which groups students in teams of 90 to give them extra attention and continuity.

Councilors did not reconsider the cut Wednesday night, despite a packed meeting and strong protests from Graner and members of the school board.

State Sen. Heather Somers said Thursday that Gov. Dannel Malloy's proposed budget that prompted Groton's cut won't pass the legislature. The appropriations committee is expected to present an alternative budget proposal next week, she said. Somers said she did not know where Groton would end up, but she is pushing for a decision so towns can prepare.

“It’s a horrible thing, the fact that half of this legislature wants to push it off and let people go through this,” she said.

The council is scheduled to adopt the town budget and set a tentative mill rate on April 26. The budget then would go to Representative Town Meeting.

The RTM could restore education funding, but it would be difficult. The body can cut a budget account with a simple majority vote. But it needs approval of two-thirds of the members present to add funding above what the Town Council recommended. The RTM has 40 members and one vacant seat.

"That's a higher bar. It has been done, but it's a higher bar to pass, of course," said Kathleen Neugent, chairwoman of the RTM Education Committee.

The $5.2 million cut is too steep and would be devastating, Neugent said. But she said she's not sure how much should be restored or what other members would support.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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