ESSEX/CHESTER/DEEP RIVER — At $21.1 million, the revised proposal for the Region 4 Board of Education budget includes a 2.87 percent increase over the 2019-20 fiscal year.
In a public hearing and special meeting of the Board of Education held on Wednesday via Google Meet, Superintendent Brian White said the proposed $21,153,741 budget, which represents an increase of $591,066 over the previous year, was the result of work done in a series of budget workshops held from Jan. 21 to March 4.
“That is the budget that is before the board for consideration and that is a result of the work we’ve done,” he said. “There is nothing new to share beyond what was shared the last time we were together.”
The board will vote on the budget on April 21 without the a statutorty public referendum in accordance with Gov. Ned Lamont’s March 21 executive order No. 7l, which waived requirements for a referendum and empowered boards of education for regional school districts to pass budgets during the declared COVID-19 pandemic state of emergency.
White said his administration has committed to publishing a Frequently Asked Questions document “not just for Region 4, but for all of the respective budgets” that will include a written response to all questions received throughout the budget development process whether from the public or board members.
“We’re going to produce a document to respond so that there’s a record out on our website so that anybody who has been in the audience previously, has had information requests or maybe more detailed questions that we couldn’t answer in the moment. We’re going to be publishing those responses soon,” he said. “It’s our intention to have that on the website before the weekend so I anticipate not just for our board but for each of our respective budgets.”
Chair Kate Sandmann said the board had asked for input from the first selectmen of Chester, Essex and Deep River, who, according to previous CT Examiner reporting, requested a cap of 3 percent on a budget increase for Region 4 Schools.
During the public hearing portion of the meeting, Sandmann said answers to any questions that were not addressed during the meeting would be available on the Region 4 website by Friday. The public was able listen to the meeting remotely and call in with questions.
“We’ve made every effort to engage stakeholders and will continue to do so and our vote is scheduled for April 21,” said Sandmann.
By phone, a number of citizens asked the board to reconsider the budget increase in light of the negative financial impact of the coronavirus on residents and businesses.
“You did the budget back before the coronavirus crisis. How in our minds did you see this changing your view of even having any kind of an increase? My feeling is, from talking with a lot of people and small businesses, that any kind of increase, even to make the mill rate go up or to try to come up with extra money, is going to be very hard for them and could be for 18 months or so,” said Susan Wright, of Chester.
Wright also asked whether there was a precedent of asking teachers unions to agree to a zero cost-of-living raise due to a crisis such as COVID-19.
“This is almost like a wartime situation. I talked to the Board of Selectmen about keeping wages flat and I was told basically that because of the union that would be hard to do. But, since this is such an unprecedented time, I was wondering if there were any situations in the past where we were allowed to ask the unions to let us out of that part of the contract for the time being,” she said.
Madeleine Meyer said she had been asking for zero increases for a number of years and emphasized that this year flat funding was imperative.
“I am nervous beyond words about what it’s going to do to every single taxpayer in the three towns. I beg you that you look at your numbers again and not do a three percent increase, not even do a one percent increase. I don’t know where you’re going to find the numbers to cut, but please look, look, look and try,” Meyer said. “These are extremely unusual times as you well know, so try to be unusual and find those cuts.”
The Region 4 budget draft is available here.