NEWINGTON – The Town Council locked in its $115.8 million 2017-18 budget this week, despite outcry from local families opposed to the low allotment to schools.
The Republican majority passed its proposal without budging on a .3 percent increase to the Board of Education, which school officials said could have a significant impact on the district.
GOP councilors rejected six attempts by Democrats Tuesday night to raise the increase; the proposals were issued one after the other without any discussion. Carol Anest started the party’s negotiations with the schools’ 2.49 percent request. After this was rejected five other proposals followed, gradually dropping to .34 percent, the last denied. Anest argued that the town had already negotiated salary contracts for school employees, who may not be guaranteed their jobs if the low increase passed.
“We’re glued to these contracts,” she said. “We negotiate salaries in good faith.”
Republicans were firm in their decision to keep spending at a minimum, citing uncertainty around the amount of state aid this year. Dave Nagel called the budget “conservative and fair.”
“It maintains services to the town and will keep Newington running efficiently,” he explained. “Our school system will function and will function well.”
Days before the meeting the BOE pleaded with councilors to transfer $1 million from the town’s capital improvements fund to its operating budget, redirecting funding for a delayed project at one of the middle schools. Councilors instead opted to move $375,000 from the same line item to another within the CIP, for minor improvements on school properties.
“When the CIP committee met earlier in the year they initially made cuts to these areas in the amount of $375,000,” Majority Leader Beth DelBuono said. “This is an effort to restore some money to the board so they can hopefully address some of their other needs in their operating budget this year.”
Democrats were in favor of the $1 million transfer out of CIP, arguing it would help schools without raising taxes.
“This money would be sitting for a year; we would rather see it go to people,” Anest said. “It would be awash in the mill rate.”
Republicans contended that cutting the CIP fund so drastically would leave a hole next year, since the town normally allots $6.3 million to capital projects annually.
“If we decrease the CIP we would be dangerously low in that account for the purpose of funding projects in town and schools,” DelBuono said. “I’m comfortable with this budget and the steps we’ve taken to get here because I don’t want to increase taxes if not absolutely necessary.”
Public participation comprised the first hour-and-a-half of Tuesday’s meeting. The council read into the record at least 45 letters from citizens and listened to another dozen or so speak at their table. The vast majority of input was in favor of filling school officials’ request.
“Our community was once desirable and now that has decreased with the drop in funding,” Amy Alexander wrote in an email to the council. “We need to move forward and not cause a detrimental impact to our children by cutting services and programs.”
Phrases like “insulting”, “sad state of affairs” and “dangerously unacceptable” were heard more than once.
“Do right by our children,” said Jonas Roberts, a father of four and a teacher at Anna Reynolds elementary.
He and fellow teacher Jennifer Rodriguez both pointed out the district’s increasing class sizes, attributed to last year’s low funding allotment to the BOE.
“If you really cared about children and families you wouldn’t cutting school funding,” Rodriguez said.
Comments like this upset Republican Gail Budrejko, who defended the all-volunteer body.
“Everyone sitting at this table cares about the community,” Budrejko said. “It’s unfair and untrue for anybody to say otherwise. Have all the town’s wants been met? Absolutely not. Have all the town’s needs been met? Yes.”
She went on to point out that caution was in the town’s best interest with the upcoming $25 million renovation to town hall and an expected cut to state funding later this year.
“It would be irresponsible and short-sighted if we didn’t pass a budget that reflected that uncertainty.”
Several contributors defended the conservative budget, including former town councilor John “Jay” Bottalico.
“It is time for this council to hold the BOE accountable,” he said. “Wake up Newington. Stop the BOE from digging the town into a big hole.”
BOE Chairwoman Nancy Petronio said the council’s vote would put school officials in a challenging predicament as they decide how to proceed with the allotment.
“We are disappointed with the 0.3 percent budget appropriation and have to make difficult decisions in the near future.”
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.