BETHANY/WOODBRIDGE/ORANGE — With a third referendum on the school budget scheduled for June 14, Superintendent Jenn Byars has warned that if voters reject the proposed budget for Amity Regional School District for a third time, the district will be forced to consider cuts that directly impact students and staff.
In a meeting on May 31, the Board of Education recommended a budget increase of 3.19%, or $53,349,805 achieved through decreases in the district’s legal services, medical reserves and the district’s trust fund for post-employment benefits, as well eliminating a proposed position for an administrative assistant for the department of special education and a part-time position for a school health aid.
The towns have already rejected two previous budgets proposed by the Board of Education, one for a budget increase of 3.99%, and one for an increase of 3.59%.
Byars said that she was pleased that a 3.19% increase could be achieved without touching things like arts, athletics or security.
“I’m comfortable and okay with where it is. It’s not what we wanted when we started. We have definitely lost positions, but they still are not impacting students yet,” Byars told CT Examiner.
At the meeting, Byars raised the possibility of further cuts if the budget referendum once again fails.
One potential source of cuts, she said, would be eliminating a proposed school security officer position at the high school, a proposed position for cybersecurity technician and a student assistance counselor. Another would be to use armed security officers within the schools rather than a Student Resource Officer. She said that the district has been discussing the possibility of incorporating armed security officers into the schools for years, and that they finally had the necessary policies in place. Armed security officers, she said, cost less than the Student Resource Officer, although she said that it doesn’t provide the same amount of resources.
“It’s not my preference, especially two weeks after Uvalde and everything that’s happening in our country during this time,” Byars said.
Other potential cuts could be reductions in middle school athletics, such as soccer, baseball and football, or the shift to a “pay to play” model at the high school, in which students who wanted to pay a sport would have to pay a fee, with a cap on how much each family could pay. Students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch — about 5 percent of students in the district, according to Byars — would not have to pay.
Byars also raised the idea of reducing the number of late buses that run and “regretfully” eliminating STEAM Day — a kind of fair in which middle and high schoolers present science, math, engineering, and arts-related activities to 5th graders who will come to the district’s middle schools the following year. Byars said the board was opposed to both those ideas. She also said that the board could make cuts to instructional materials, although she warned against the idea on the grounds that it would amount to a deferral rather than a true savings.
“Cutting one year just creates an artificial bubble to add to the next year because eventually we have to purchase those instructional resources,” Byars explained.
Byars also told CT Examiner that she was not sure what the impact of inflation would be on the budget for the coming year, but that many departments did not request a budget increase despite the effects of inflation.
“We already know out of the gate that programs like our culinary program face higher food costs. Our career technical ed programs face higher supply costs. Even things as simple as … paper towels and toilet paper and copy paper, it’s all significantly more expensive right now,” she said.
“I think we are realistic”
At the meeting, the board held a long discussion about the district’s surplus, which this year totals about $907,200. Byars said that of this $907,200, about $517,000 would go into spending for capital projects, such as buying new instruments for the middle school, roof drainage and media upgrades. The remaining money would be returned to the towns.
Board member Levere-D’Addio asked why the administration was not taking advantage of the fact that the district has a surplus.
“People feel they are being overtaxed, and they would like a legitimate explanation for why,” she said.
Byars said that the district put aside funding for contingencies and unexpected costs, and that the district is required to have a surplus at the end of the year. The district begins its budgeting process each year from zero, with the exception of up to 2 percent of the district’s funds, which can be placed aside for capital projects under state law. Any additional funds are returned to the towns.
Byars told CT Examiner that the district’s yearly surpluses had been unusually high over the last two years because of savings during COVID, something that the board should not expect to continue.
Board Chair John Belfonti said he saw the district having a surplus as an indication that the administration was doing a good job in balancing the budget and maximizing savings.
“Are we conservative budgeters? I think we are realistic. And I think we’re trying not to have a surplus of any sort of magnitude, but if we can have a surplus that is the result of hard work and being frugal with our money, I don’t think the board and the administration should be penalized for that,” Belfonti said at the meeting.
The referendum on the budget is scheduled for June 14. Polls will be open from 6 am to 8 pm at Bethany Town Hall, the High Plains Community Center in Orange and the Library Meeting Room in Woodbridge at 10 Newton Road.