Montville school board passes $37.9M budget; rolls toward private busing

Montville — The Montville Board of Education tackled two major issues Tuesday night, backing a $37.9 million budget for 2018-19 and making a push to get the district out of the busing business.

With the district potentially facing steep layoffs due to lower-than-anticipated state aid, the school board approved a budget that would shave almost a half-million dollars from operating expenses by taking advantage of five early retirements, small increases to high school class sizes and switching the middle school to block scheduling.

The proposed budget represents a 0.85 percent increase over the $37.6 million budget approved by the Town Council for 2017-18. That figure was eventually slashed to $36.6 million after state cuts in the middle of the school year.

The shifts would result in two teacher layoffs — a move that Superintendent Brian Levesque was not happy about — but far fewer layoffs than in one proposal earlier this month.

"I feel terrible about that," Levesque said. "But I feel like it's best for the district. I'm fully confident we can make this budget work."

Class sizes at the high school, typically between 15 and 17 students, will remain within the district's guidelines of 20 to 25 students, Levesque said.

The vote was 7-2 in favor of sending the budget to the Town Council, with Colleen Rix and Steven Loiler voting against because they preferred to hold off to discuss options and make a final budget call at a special meeting next week.

In a move that mirrored a decision last year to address the district's aging bus fleet, the school board voted 8-1 to seek bids from private busing companies for the 2018-19 school year.

The move to outsource busing would save only about $50,000 in operating expenses in the upcoming school year, but it could save a total of $1 million in capital and operating expenses over the next four years, Levesque said.

After narrowing down a few proposals last year, the board eventually killed the idea in a 4-3 vote, rejecting a contract with Durham School Services. At the time, the town's bus drivers and mechanics said they were concerned about potentially losing health insurance benefits in their union contract with the district.

A message left with the Teamsters Local 493 union chapter was not immediately responded to on Tuesday.

Rix, who voted against the contract last year due to community concerns, voted against seeking bids Tuesday, arguing the recent tweaks in the budget already minimized potential job losses.

Levesque noted that after eventually accepting a bid and negotiating a host of factors including bus routes and scheduling, "All of our drivers would be offered jobs" next year. Quality assurance controls such as background checks and reviews of driving records were standard in the industry, he added.

The current bus fleet would be sold — previous estimates were around $600,000 — and the revenue would go to the town. Levesque said he was hopeful the town would work with the school board and use some of that revenue to help with the school budget.

Privatizing busing would lead to a replacement schedule that includes bus purchases every few years. No bus servicing the district would be more than 10 years old and the average bus would be no more than 5 years old. Currently, Levesque said, "the average bus is over 13 years old."

Board members said they'd continue to review potential budget reductions even while the Town Council Finance Committee reviews the proposal in the coming weeks. The board may revisit eight potential cuts or revenue opportunities, including cutting the athletic director to part-time and eliminating a librarian and several teachers, for $383,000-plus in further savings.

The board also continues to debate an annual $100 activity fee for high school students taking part in any sport or after-school club, which Levesque estimates could save the district about $40,000. Students who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs would not be required to pay, officials said.

b.kail@theday.com

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to accurately reflect the final proposed budget figure.

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