Preston residents reject school spending plan, approve town government budget

Preston — Residents soundly rejected the proposed $11.9 million 2018-19 school budget for the second time Tuesday but approved the $3.84 million town government budget by just four votes.

The school budget failed 382 to 291 Tuesday, while the town government budget passed 337 to 333 in Tuesday’s second budget referendum. Both budgets failed in the June 12 referendum.

The school budget rejection left the Board of Finance with questions of how to pay immediate bills for July, including payroll, utilities and contracted costs, since the annual property tax bills have not yet gone out to property taxpayers. The town has an undesignated surplus fund of $2.5 million, which can be tapped for immediate expenses.

The finance board asked for a “good itemized list” of July and half of August expenses, with priorities by due dates, that must be approved at the Board of Finance July 18 meeting at 7 p.m. at Town Hall. But First Selectman Robert Congdon said $58,091 in payroll and payroll tax payments for the town and Finance Director John Spang said school payroll and payroll taxes of about $54,000 must be paid this week. Spang did not have the exact number for the school payroll, so the finance board approved spending up to $60,000 to pay this week’s school payroll and the $58,091 for town payroll using the town’s undesignated fund balance.

Town Treasurer Susan Nylen will be asked to provide an itemized list of how the money was spent at the July 18 meeting for the town payroll.

Board of Finance Chairwoman Melissa Lennon said she was “a little troubled” that the school budget failed, feeling that residents are not familiar with the costs in the budget and the impacts of further cuts.

Lennon said the Board of Education’s decision to delay making final cuts to the budget until it went to referendum could have hurt the budget vote, because residents didn’t have enough information on how the cuts would affect the preschool-through-eighth-grade school system.

Lennon said residents complaining about the budget on social media centered on the school’s universal preschool program, which was controversial when it was enacted in January 2015, and why the town has a full-time superintendent.

Lennon recommended holding a public forum to explain the school budget and effects of cuts. But finance board member Ken Zachem said it’s not the Board of Finance’s job to defend or explain the school budget.

“The bottom line,” he said. “That’s all we’re legally obligated to do.”

No members of the Board of Education attended the finance board meeting that followed the referendum vote.

Congdon said the Board of Education should lead any public hearings or meetings explaining the school budget. The finance board voted to recommend that the Board of Education hold a public hearing to present its budget and explain the impacts of cuts, asking for a response by the finance board’s July 18 meeting.

Finance board members suggested the school board present the effects of cuts of $50,000, $75,000 and $100,000 from the proposed $11.9 million, and the effects of being held to the current budget of $11.6 million.

“This public hearing has to be held sooner rather than later,” Congdon said.

Resident Andy Depta, who circulated fliers opposing the budget, complained that the Board of Finance was failing to do its job by not cutting the school budget. Public hearings usually draw about 60 residents, while "600 residents just told you what to do," Depta said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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