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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Menzo says 3% needed just to keep service level

As published in the Record Journal, Tuesday February 14, 2012

By Russell Blair
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2225

WALLINGFORD — With a large drop-off in federal funding from a year ago, and the rising costs of insurance and supplies, School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo says the education budget needs to increase by 3.05 percent just to keep services at the current level.

The Board of Education is preparing to present its budget to Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. and is asking for a 3.91 increase overall, or $3,393,634, in additional funding. The money consists of a “sustained services” budget — the cost to operate the schools at their current level — and select items from the school board’s strategic plan. But Menzo says the figure is deceiving, because a federal jobs grant worth $1,295,275 won’t be available this year, creating an immediate shortfall.

Menzo said the Board of Education recommended splitting the use of the grant over two years. To stave off an increase in taxes, Dickinson required the district to spend all the money in 2011-12.

“Now the burden is on this year,” Menzo said. Financially, the district is ahead of where Menzo said it would be a year ago, when he argued to split the grant over two budgets and projected a deficit of more than $2 million. Other savings have been found, but still, if the school budget gets no increase, there will be an automatic gap of $1.3 million that must be filled. “If appropriate funding is not provided, there will be significant services that will have to be reduced or eliminated,” Menzo said.

Democratic Board of Education member Michael Votto said the board has scrutinized the budget and that there are no unnecessary costs. A portion of the money has gone to pay for unfunded state mandates, Votto said.

Votto said he realizes that with a small increase in the grand list, there isn’t new money available, and the increase in the education budget could require a tax increase.

“If we have to raise taxes to help education, I think that’s the best place to put it,” he said. “Education is a priority to prepare our kids for the world.”

Votto said that with other costs going up, “I don’t know how people expect taxes won’t go up.”

Board of Education Chairwoman Roxane McKay said a lot of hard work went into this year’s budget, and she had confidence in the proposal the board would bring to the mayor. McKay said that some of the items included for maintenance — such as repairing cracked sidewalks and removing asbestos — are essential for safety concerns.

With the jobs grant taken out of the equation, the school board is asking for $2,100,408, or about a 2.42 percent increase in new funds from the town.

Menzo said that some of the increase covers additions to the budget — such as adding lacrosse as a sport at the high schools and introducing world language, math and career and technical education coordinators for all the district’s schools — but a large portion is for employee benefits and non-certified salaries. Teachers and administrators took a pay freeze in the first year of a three-year contract negotiated last fall.

As for the strategic plan, Menzo said that the board and school administrators realize they won’t be able to move forward with every aspect of it. Still, money is being put toward technology and maintenance items that are part of the plan, though it is coming from the district’s unencumbered fund balance, or monies left over from last year’s budget.

“It might take longer to get there, but we are moving forward,” Menzo said. McKay said she felt the board had been good stewards of town money, and that no increase or a smaller increase could mean higher costs down the road. As a taxpayer, she said she weighs the cost to townspeople versus the education benefit to the schoolchildren. “It’s a tough balancing act,” she said.

The school board will meet Feb. 27 to adopt a budget and present it to the mayor on March 1.

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