School budget: New budget process put to the test

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SHERIDAN ROY

STAFF WRITER

Last week, the board of education saw a presentation of the superintendent’s budget proposal. It features an increase of 3.1% or about $3 million. Now, the board of finance will tasked with reviewing the proposal in February before the board of education votes on it in March. Along the way, there is a series of workshops and public hearings.

During his budget proposal, Superintendent Tim Connellan said that the BOE has a statutory obligation and responsibility to propose a budget that meets the needs of the school district. He said that school administration felt the proposal was “thoughtful and deliberate.”

This year marks a change in the town’s budget process. After the November election, the BOF set proactive guidance, requesting in a vote that the total town and BOE budget increase remain below a 1.5% increase to the mill rate for 2020-21. There are no penalties if it can’t be done, but it was intended to be a guide for local boards.

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So what does a 3.1% proposal mean to the new process? That’s unclear since the BOF guideline is linked to the mill rate, and factors—such as an increase to the grand list and the recent property revaluation—are still unknown.

Last year, the BOE budget increased 3.13%; the overall budget increased 2.64%; but the mill rate increased just 0.16 (0.5%).

“To be effective in our financial stewardship role, the BOF must set guidance. We must go first. We must lead,” said BOF chair John Leary. “Our departments need a target when they assess their services, service levels, initiatives and such. We are a growing community, and our departments face that growth head-on.”

Leary said town departments look to the BOF and the town manager for guidance on how to proceed. Departments respond to the guidance that was set, and bring forth their needs and justification for those needs.

“Then, we make it all work in the most responsible way for the complete town of Southington,” said Leary. “The work is not easy, and the results always present more challenges as we meet the needs in the most effective and efficient manner.”

Leary said that he agreed that the BOE presented a thoughtful budget that meets the educational needs of Southington students. “Our community takes pride in our schools, and has for a long time,” he said. “From a BOF perspective, needs cannot be considered mutually exclusive.”

Leary said costs increase over time, particularly when the majority of the costs are labor and benefit costs that contractually increase. The BOF assesses costs, particularly the cost of new initiatives, and works hard to strategically manage and grow the grand list to garner new tax paying assets.

“In the end, we carefully and respectfully look at the impact on our mill rate, the affordability of government, and then work back to recommend the most responsible taxes to meet the needs of Southington,” he said.

In order to close budget deficits in Connecticut, the state government has been initiating new taxes, raising current taxes, and reducing aid to towns.

“Southington folks pay more in state tax than they receive back in state services,” said Leary. “We are net payers to the state government. The healthier you are, the more you pay, and the less you get. This is why many folks, especially net payers, work hard to focus and limit the size and role of state government.”

The BOF is tasked with funding local government in light of uncertain state funding levels and local needs. While the education budget is for operations and does not include school buildings, the general government is tasked with renovations and construction of school buildings, and continues to carry debt and pay interest on past school renovations.

Ultimately, both the BOE and town budgets come together as whole budget that funds the needs of the town as a whole.

“We are one town, in a fiscally healthy position, ready to face the challenges the future presents to us,” said Leary. “Southington folks are in good hands with our department leaders and town government.”

To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Roy, email her at News@SouthingtonObserver.com.