COLCHESTER — The Board of Finance is asking the school board to cut up to $1.3 million from its proposed budget, in addition to covering nearly $1 million more through funds that the district already has set aside.
The Board of Education in March proposed a budget increase of 9.83 percent, or $4.1 million, over last year, to the finance board. In a budget presentation in March, Superintendent Dan Sullivan III said the increase was coming from a combination of factors, including the need to absorb the cost of certain salaries being paid for by the coronavirus relief funds and a substantial rise in special education costs.
Andrea Migliaccio, finance board chair, asked that the Board of Education pay for its $695,000 increase in special education using the school’s assigned fund balance, which, she said, currently contains about $1.4 million.
“Here’s my thinking on it. You have the funds in the assigned fund balance. We can use that so that, therefore, I don’t have to go out and raise $695,000 from the people. You have the money,” Migliaccio said.
Migliaccio explained if school administrators were able to get reimbursement from the state for the special education expenses, they could then use the state reimbursement to replace the funds they had taken out of the account.
She also asked the superintendent to take about $271,000 out of the district’s capital plan to pay for capital improvements listed in the operational budget.
“You do not have a capital plan. Your Board of Education has not produced what their three-year capital plan is. So I’m asking that we consider that, so we don’t have to go out and raise those funds. I feel that you already have them,” she said .
Migliaccio suggested that the Board of Finance could take about $212,000 from the town’s undesignated fund balance to pay the last installment of a payment toward Honeywell International for an energy-efficiency review the company performed on the school district.
Democratic finance board member Mike Egan pushed back against parts of Migliaccio’s proposal, however, saying that the town had still not received a financial audit from the year 2022, and that it wasn’t clear how much money was actually in some of the accounts Migliaccio was proposing that the district draw from.
“We have financial professionals on both the Board of Education and town side that still can’t totally say this is exactly where those funds are, how much they are, how much they’ve been used for,” Egan said.
But Migliaccio argued that she’d run her proposals by the town’s finance director and the town auditor, and that it was “absolutely something that can be done.”
“We want to help [the Board of Education] as much as we can, but … we can’t have a mill rate spike. We shouldn’t have to have a mill rate spike. We have other avenues,” she said.
Egan proposed his own plan, which included smaller cuts to the Board of Education budget. Like Migliaccio, he said the town could use the undesignated fund balance to pay Honeywell, and he suggested taking about $188,000 from the school board’s capital reserve account to pay for capital projects in the budget.
After that, he said, the Board of Education needed to find ways to cut its budget by $350,000. He suggested that the district looks at reducing things like its legal expenses, health insurance and supplies.
Board members spent a portion of the meeting questioning school administrators’ plans to add school safety officers at each school and a greeter at William J. Johnson Middle School.
Sullivan said the security changes were the result of a recent audit showing that the district was not following best practices for security. He said they were waiting for a full audit report that would recommend any deficiencies found in the district’s safety plan.
Board of Finance member Mike Hayes questioned whether having armed security guards was the best way to keep students safe.
“I’m against armed guards and I’m not a hundred percent sold on the security officers. As I’ve seen around the country with shootings that have developed, there’s been hundreds of officers in the school that have let a whole classroom, which children get killed. There have been security guards who have run out the door while the shooters have run in,” he said.
Sullivan said the district had not decided whether or not the guards would be armed, but explained that the primary reason to have security officers wasn’t to protect in the case of school shootings, but for more common situations like medical emergencies or custody battles.
Migliaccio and finance board member Tim Vaillancourt said they were in favor of the school security upgrades, with Vaillancourt adding that he felt having the security guards without arming them was “a waste of money.” Migliaccio said she would have liked to see a phase-in of the security plan.
“I’m entirely behind you on all things security and safety. Always. I’d love to see a plan. But I’ll leave that for you,” she said.
Some citizens who spoke at the meeting questioned the reasoning for the budget increases.
Resident Mike Dubreil asked why the per-pupil cost had increased 46 percent over the last 10 years even as enrollment in the schools has declined.
But Board of Education member Chris Rivers said that, with adjustment for inflation, per-pupil spending has increased just 9 percent — from $19,245 per pupil in 2014 to $20,886 per pupil in 2023. He also said that the state had placed additional requirements on the districts during that time.
The district is also seeing a yearly reduction of nearly $500,000 in funding from the state, which this year will be supplemented by tuition from Norwich students who attend Bacon Academy.
Republican Selectman Jason LaChapelle said he felt the 9 percent increase in per-pupil spending over the last decade did not line up with the narratives that he had been hearing about the schools falling apart and not getting what they needed.
“We’re talking about a 9.8% increase doing what’s best for the town,” he said. “I don’t see how that’s what’s best for a town that has 26% of its population who’s already spending more than 30% of their income on housing. So I don’t necessarily think that’s genuine.”
Migliaccio said the finance board was trying to keep the school budget at 73 percent of the total spending for the town, a level she said has been maintained for years.
Other residents said they felt the increases were necessary, saying costs had gone up and the loss of federal grants made it necessary to increase the budget.
“The superintendent and Board of Ed did hard work by reducing the original 14 percent down to 9.83. Things have already been removed, shaved away, et cetera. The budget reflects their actual needs. Very real things will be lost with further reductions,” resident Cindy Frasier said.
Jenny Sevigny, a teacher in another district, said the materials that teachers use in classrooms are more expensive than years ago, when technology was not as advanced.
“I think understanding that the amount of technology as well as the cost of educating students in a 21st-century world is completely different than what we remember when we were back in school,” she said.
Sullivan told CT Examiner that he did not know yet what the district would do to reduce the budget by the amount the finance board had proposed. The school board will meet on Tuesday to discuss potential cuts.