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Preston residents offer mixed opinions on proposed school budget

Preston — Residents were divided during Thursday’s budget public hearing teleconference, with some callers asking the Board of Finance to restore at least some of the $363,000 cut from the proposed school budget and others urging the town to cut spending during the COVID-19 emergency.

Nearly two dozen residents called in during the budget teleconference and another 22 submitted emails, nearly all addressing the proposed school budget. The Board of Education initially proposed a $12.6 million budget with a $577,319 increase, 4.8% over this year’s total. The Board of Finance last week cut $363,000 for a new total of $12,241,318, an increase of $214,320, or 1.78% over this year’s budget.

The finance board last week also cut $59,442 from the requested town government budget, bringing it to $3,858,605, just $35 lower than this year’s total.

Preston residents needed three referendums to approve final budgets in each of the past two years, but under Gov. Ned Lamont’s COVID-19 executive order, towns are prohibited from holding in-person town meetings and referendums. The Board of Finance will adopt a final budget and set the tax rate at a special meeting June 10.

During the public hearing, Superintendent Roy Seitsinger said the proposed cut would be very difficult to absorb, with 95% of the budget being fixed costs. Cuts would affect staffing, programs and extracurricular activities as the district also must implement COVID-19 social distancing, extra cleaning and other safety precautions when in-person classes return.

Seitsinger said Preston values small class sizes, “smooth” bus rides and free sports, music and activities. Those items would be considered for cuts, he said, along with the new social worker position created in this year’s budget.

Speakers in favor of restoring the funds said students will need more support as they return to school after the COVID-19 disruptions. Those supporting the cuts argued town taxpayers are hurting financially and can't afford a sharp tax increase.

Many speakers agreed with resident Amanda Phelps' request to use the town’s healthy undesignated fund balance to offset any tax increase to cover the school budget increase. She called it “the responsible option.”

The town’s total surplus fund currently has $2.6 million, 15.8% of the proposed combined town, school and debt service budgets. Town policy calls for keeping at least 9.5% of the current budget total as a reserve contingency, leaving $1 million in the town’s cash reserve.

“This is not the time to take a single thing away from these kids that the world and (COVID-19) haven’t already taken away,” resident Danielle Sandoval said.

Resident Susan Strader said the Board of Education has returned money from its budget in each of the past few years, and that money, earmarked for education, ended up in the general fund. “There’s enough money in the fund balance to restore the board of ed budget and not raise taxes,” she said.

But other residents implored the Board of Finance to stand by the cut and consider reducing the school budget further. Resident Andy Bilodeau said the town and school budgets should have no increases.

Resident Patricia Biggins said a no-increase school budget would still mean an increase, because the school board expects to return $140,000 to the town at the end of this fiscal year. The school board also transferred $160,000 unneeded in its special education budget to cover a cost overrun in the middle school science lab renovation project. She said that money also could have been returned to the town as surplus.

Several speakers said many Preston residents are unemployed and don’t know if their jobs will be restored. They urged the Board of Finance to be conservative and keep the tax rate down, especially in a year when the town cannot have a budget referendum.

c.bessette@theday.com

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