By Rob Glidden
The Board of Finance and school officials extensively discussed both the details and the philosophy behind the Board of Education’s budget request during a recent meeting.
This was the formal presentation of the school board’s $85.3 million for the next fiscal year, which amounts to a 3.51 percent increase over the previous year. The board has reduced about $900,000 from the proposal presented by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Joseph Erardi, which would have been a 4.87 percent increase.
The BOF asked why the requested increase was larger than the budgets of the last few years and there were several answers to this question. Rising costs for salaries, health insurance, special education, and transportation are familiar. Others, such as $412,000 worth of technology upgrades and the much-discussed all-day kindergarten program, are specific to this year.
School officials said it was becoming costly just to keep up with increasing state and federal standards, leaving BOF Vice-Chairman Joe Labieniec to wonder why all-day kindergarten was being added to the mix now.
“What I’m hearing is that we’re at razor-thin levels in terms of being able to do what we need to do,” he said. “Can an argument be made that the million dollars for all-day kindergarten could be better spent to help with that exposure and do what we need to do?”
During the presentation, Erardi had described Southington as “behind the curve” when compared to other towns in the state, noting that nearly all of the school districts comparable in size to Southington had already established the program. He said the proposal was supported unanimously by kindergarten teachers and elementary school principals and by a majority of parents.
“To delay the proposal would not make a lot of sense to our team,” Erardi said. “This is a tough year and next year will be a tough year. There’s never a good year.”
Some of the costs associated with all-day kindergarten are offset by staff reductions elsewhere, a point BOF member Wayne Stanforth noted when praising the school board’s work.
“You’ve cut staff positions this year and last year as well,” he said. “I know that is not easy. It shows that you’re trying to do the best you can for the least cost.”
In addition to discussing the numbers, the board also delved into some more open-ended questions about broad topics like measuring the success of the school system and the relationship between employee unions and management.
There was also a lengthy debate on the process the BOF has adopted for directing budgetary questions to school officials. The board’s two Democrats, Sandra Feld and Tony Casale, expressed frustration with “the grid,” a system designed to compile questions before sending them to the school administration.
“All these rules and regulations are more than I care to deal with,” said Feld, who referred to the process as “absolutely convoluted.”
Casale said he has frequently asked what the school budget would look like if it was funded at “level services,” a term based on a scenario where the only increases are unavoidable items like salaries and state mandates. BOE Chairman Brian Goralski said a suitable answer to that question was not yet available.
In his own remarks, Goralski said he had been encouraged by the discussions between the two boards over the last few years.
“People in town used to see the budget process as a debate and an obstacle,” he said. “I think that now it has become a partnership and I look forward to growing that partnership.”
While deliberating on the budget, the BOF will hold several workshops and invite the public to speak at a hearing scheduled for March 4.