With both the first town and school budget proposals due this week, officials are readying the first rounds of a discussion many hope will avoid a repeat of previous difficult budget years in Newtown.
Interim Superintendent John Reed will present his proposed budget Thursday at Newtown High School, a reschedule due to Tuesday’s snowfall. First Selectman Pat Llodra and Finance Director Robert Tait will present the municipal proposed budget Wednesday during a Board of Selectmen meeting at Newtown Municipal Center.
School officials in particular have been cautious about presenting an amenable budget, especially among those concerned about rising taxes.
"I heard more frustration about the increase in taxes from everybody,” said Board of Education member Kathy Hamilton at a Dec. 23 board meeting. "From the over-55 community, from parents, from people who work in the districts -- I heard it from absolutely everybody. Last year was a complete disaster as far as the increase for a lot of people. I want us to be realistic, and I don’t want us to go through three or four referenda to get there."
In the buildup to the budget presentations, Board of Finance member Joe Kearney presented numbers last week showing the board’s projection of consequences of an increasing education budget hand-in-hand with declining enrollment.
"If you were going to make a bet, I think you would bet this trend is going to continue,” Kearney said. “That’s our dilemma, that’s our challenge.”
Kearney said numbers show the influence a declining student population has had on per-pupil expenditures and the town’s overall budget. Newtown’s enrollment is currently at its lowest since 2000, according to recent figures. The town spent $14,350 per student in 2013-14 and is projected to spend more than $15,000 in 2014-15, assuming a 1.71% budget increase.
"This is why it is so critical to try and plan ahead for any rapid student population declines — because even if we spend less in total, our per pupil expenditures will increase,” Kearney said.
In December, Board of Finance members sent a letter to the Board of Education asking for, among other things, a flat budget for the upcoming year. At a Dec. 23 meeting, some Board of Education members said they would support a flat budget, but an amendment to add a zero-percent budget increase to the yearly list of budget goals failed after a tie vote, with chair Debbie Leidlein, Hamilton and David Freedman in favor and Laura Roche, John Vouros and Michelle Embree Ku against.
"Emotionally, it feels good to say zero percent,” Ku said. "But it doesn’t make sense to me. We’re here to represent the needs of the district, not what the taxpayers feel emotionally good voting for."
Followup municipal budget proposal meetings are scheduled for Jan. 29 and Feb. 3. The municipal budget will be presented to the Board of Finance on Feb. 10. Followup school budget workshops are scheduled for Jan. 28 through Feb. 14 — see the Board of Education’s budget season introduction for more details on dates.