HADDAM/KILLINGWORTH — A planned cut of 6 teachers and 11 staff still leaves local school officials with a 5.84 percent budget increase, and the task of trimming the budget further to prevent a “significant” hike in property taxes.
“Some of you might be feeling that this is a little breathtaking — and I would agree. It is a little breathtaking,” Board of Education Chair Suzanne Sack at a meeting earlier this month.
Region 17 schools have lowered their initial budget request from 6.7 percent to 5.84 percent, according to a presentation at Haddam Killingworth High School on Tuesday, and school officials say they are looking for additional savings.
According to Superintendent Jeff Wihbey, the budget hikes should be understood in the context of a decade of limited budget increases.
“We’re a victim of very successful and prudent budgeting that went on for 10 years here,” Wihbey told board members.
The proposed increase, which district officials say is due to a combination of inflation and the after effects of the pandemic, is the second year in a row that the district has requested a budget increase of more than 5 percent.
Last year, the school district was able to offset some of the effect on the Haddam and Killingworth town budgets by dividing $1.7 million between the towns that was left over when the district switched from self-insured health care to the state’s Partnership Plan in 2018. Dissolving the fund lowered the assessment on the towns to 1.5 percent last year.
But this year, the fund no longer exists to provide an offset.
Killingworth First Selectman Nancy Gorski told CT Examiner that the district’s original request this year would have represented an increase of 11.65 percent over what the town had paid last year toward the Region 17 budget, and would have raised the mill rate about 2.25 mills, an increase she described as “significant.”
“While taxpayers want a quality education for our children,” Gorski wrote in an email, “this increase will be difficult for some, especially seeing this is the second year of 6% increases for RSD 17.”
Haddam First Selectman Bob McGarry told CT Examiner by phone that a 6.7 percent increase would have meant a 12.9 percent increase to Haddam’s portion of the budget, a 3.3 mill increase, assuming all else remained equal.
But McGarry said that there were a few things that would “soften the blow” of an increase for Haddam, including a $16 million increase to the town’s grand list and the ability to cut back on some capital investments.
McGarry told CT Examiner that he felt “neutral” about the district’s budget request.
“Last year, which the school district had had a fairly large increase, though not anywhere near this one … in our town, only 13 percent of the registered voters bothered to show up to vote on it one way or the other,” said McGarry. “[It] kind of tells me not a whole lot of people are concerned at what makes up 75 percent of typically a small town or any town’s budget.”
Only a handful of people attended a community forum on Tuesday — a sharp contrast to the recent turnout in East Lyme, where proposed staffing cuts elicited a strong protest from CEA, the state’s largest teachers union.
Killingworth resident Heather Scholfield asked whether the district was seeking out grant funding and questioned administrator salaries and number of administrators in the district.
Jeff Stearges, a resident of Haddam, said that the increases over the last two years, when balanced out with the low increases or decreases in prior years, actually pegged the budget increases at the rate of inflation over the last decade.
Transportation, utilities and insurance costs, as well as contractual salary increases for staff account for $1.9 million of the $2.6 million requested increase. Transportation costs have increased nearly $580,000 — but Sack said the district was still paying less on a per-bus basis than neighboring districts.
Sack raised the idea of combining multiple grade levels together on buses, which she said could save the district – which Wihby said was “by far” the widest geographic span for a school district in Connecticut – a great deal of money.
“In my opinion, we’ve done, in some cases, some excess maneuvering to try and accommodate the feeling that certain kids shouldn’t sit on the bus with other kids,” said Sack. “However, at some point, you’ve got to open your mind up to alternative solutions.”
The district is also paying significant increases in salaries, benefits and buildings and grounds costs.
“We all know that we have some very old buildings and when you have older buildings you are going to end up expending a lot of money in upkeep, repair, preventative maintenance, and so forth,” said Wihbey.
In her email, Gorski said the district is also planning to bond money for school improvements. Wihbey noted that a recent facilities study called for $119.5 million in capital improvements to the district over the next 10-15 years.Sack told board members the first phase of the capital plan would go to referendum in about a year.
The district will meet with the board of finance and first selectmen of the two towns on Tuesday, March 28 to continue discussions on the budget.