Region 4 Board of Education meets to discuss budget choices (CT Examiner/Werth)

After Essex, Deep River and Chester Selectmen Set 3 Percent Cap, School Board Debates Budget Choices

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The proposed Region 4 Board of Education budget includes a 2.47 percent increase compared with last year’s budget, but after Wednesday night’s meeting, that number is likely to increase to 3 percent. That would bring the total budget for 2020-2021 to between $21.1 and $21.2 million.

“The process this year was making up for the gaps, we wanted to provide for the programs, but also make sure we covered what has been missed in years past,” said Superintendent Brian White. “In the future, we want this discussion to be more value-based, but right now we are working with what the towns can handle.”

According to White, the selectmen of Chester, Essex and Deep River requested a budget increase of no more than 3 percent for Region 4 schools.

“We worked very hard to come in with a very responsible number… and in some cases cutting without hurting programming… a number that the towns could handle,” White said. “We have been very clear about our priorities given the landscape and everything we are contending with.”

The reasons for the budget increase include a dwindling health insurance fund and a capital reserve fund that is empty.

The most obvious change in the budget – a $91,429 addition – comes from an increased appropriation for the health insurance reserve due to a projected 18.5 percent growth in health benefit expenses and a reduced reserve fund. Across all five budgets – Region 4, Chester, Essex, Deep River and Supervision Committee – there is a proposed $240,000 increase to cover the estimated $7.5 million in health expenses for the school district.

“Because the health insurance fund is housed in the Region 4 budget, we put the recommended amount, $240,000, into the budget. With the guidance of our consultant we have come up with a way to bill out that $240,000 to the participating entities,” White said. “Last time we were together the budget was proposed at a 3.01 percent increase, now we’re at 2.47 percent.”

The majority of the board members, however, urged the superintendent to increase the budget back to the original proposal in order to cover the deficits in capital spending.

“I think we need to spend the difference between the previous budget and today’s number to cover some of these capital expenses,” said board member DG Fitton after facilities director Leigh Rankin presented the top priorities in terms of infrastructure repairs and improvements. “This can’t be what we zero out.”

The projects Rankin proposed include ongoing repairs to curbing and sidewalks, the replacement of an elevator, the replacement of the HVAC system in the IT room, roof drain lining among others.

“Right now at JW, kids in wheelchairs can’t go upstairs to go to class, they have to go outside and around to get to the second floor. That’s what we’re not saying here,” Fitton said.

Rankin gave a prioritized list of all the repairs and improvements needed to the board members and superintendent with each item listed as a priority one, two or three. All board members agreed that the priority ones and twos – totaling $65,000 – be included in the proposed 2020-2021 budget. Many board members said that in addition, the curb and sidewalk repairs should be completed this year bringing the total line item to $180,000.

“It’s hard for me to say we should put $180,000 more into the budget to do the ones, twos and sidewalks project, but being in insurance I would say we need to do the sidewalks and curbs. It’s a safety issue,” said Lori Ann Clymas, a member of the board of education.

Other members, including Fitton, suggested that waiting on the sidewalk project and allocating an additional $75,000 to the capital reserve fund in order to allow for projects to be completed in the future.

“We need to commit to funding these line items and taking care of our own buildings. That account right now sits at nothing or less than nothing, we need to make investing in the reserve a habit,” Fitton said. “That fund can’t be the afterthought, it’s what winds us up in the position we are in. Deferred maintenance is the way that these buildings were not taken care of. Bonding should not be your repairs and maintenance money.”

In addition to the reserve funds, the budget also incorporated the salaries for the food service workers and administration at the middle and high schools for the first time as the cafeteria fund has also been declining. Those three line items total $188,692.

“This is our initial effort to try to bring some financial clarity to our food service,” White said. “We will have a much better idea in future budget years.”

Between several funds that support all four boards of education that reside in the Region 4 budget and expenditures on athletics that some board members question as equitable use of funds, the board and superintendent are not quite ready to wrap up this year’s budget.

“Anything that is a four- or five-way split belongs in the supervision budget, not Region 4,” Fitton said. “I understand the hesitation, but it’s time to move on.”

After reviewing expenditures for sports, including swimming which costs more than $3,000 for transporting a single athlete, board member Paula Weglarz said she is not ready to support this year’s budget.

White cautioned board members that every problem inherited by his administration cannot be fixed in a single year.

“This spring, in just a couple of months, we will be completing a full facilities review that will help us know where to invest in terms of infrastructure,” White said. 

The board will receive the audit from 2018-19 and a report on their accounting deficits in the coming months as well. 

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