More than two dozen Newtown officials met Wednesday for a preliminary discussion on the 2013-14 municipal budget, fulfilling a pledge made during last spring’s difficult budget deliberations to increase transparency and communication regarding the Board of Education budget.
The meeting brought together the Legislative Council, the Board of Finance, Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education to review potential challenges facing the next budget process.
Board of Education Chairman Debbie Leidlein and First Selectman Patricia Llodra went through the main points of the school budget and town budget, pointing out key factors that might cause future difficulties.
However, for both it appeared the biggest hurdle looming on the horizon could be the possibility of state cuts to grants the town is counting on, particularly the town’s $4,338,374 Education Cost Sharing, which constitutes nearly 60 percent of its intergovernmental revenue.
The state budget is already facing a deficit for the current fiscal year, and Councilman George Ferguson reported that the state’s labor agreements traded no-layoff guarantees for contract concessions. That means the only way the state could achieve a balanced budget is through tax increases and/or spending cuts on grants.
Llodra said the only way to compensate for state grant cuts would be through a substantial increase in the Grand List. But she expects only a modest increase, about the same as the .66 percent increase seen for the 2011 Grand List.
The 2011 Grand List was approximately $3.95 billion. A full 1 percent increase would yield about $1 million in additional revenue.
Leidlein and Board of Education Business Director Ron Bienkowski said for the school budget, the item providing the most uncertainty continues to be special education out-of-district placement costs.
Bienkowski’s slide presentation indicated those costs have risen from $5.5 million to over $7 million in the last five years, outpacing any other cost factor for the school budget.
The state also keeps reducing funding for its excess cost grant, according to Bienkowski, which is supposed to reimburse school districts for part of the cost of educating the most costly special education students.
And in 2013-14, the district will get a new unfunded state mandate, the cost of a new teacher evaluation procedure projected at $78,000.
After the end of the joint discussion, several parents spoke during a public participation session on the possibility of another school closing looming for next year.
Michelle Ku of Platt’s Hill Road said social network channels are full of talk about a school closing, and she called on officials to answer that question, and whether it would benefit taxpayers or school children, before the town votes on the budget.
Legislative Council Chairman Jeffrey Capeci said he was sure that question would be answered before the budget came up for a vote.