PLYMOUTH - The Town Council has set a referendum date of Wednesday, May 3, for a proposed 2017-18 budget of $40.9 million, after an evening of contentious debate over school funding and restoring a police officer to the schools.
The proposal is an increase of 2.58 percent over the current year, meaning the mill rate would go up 3.51 mills.
The referendum will go from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., at Town Hall. The council also approved adding an optional question to the ballot asking those who vote against the budget if they did so because they considered it too high or too low.
The evening of debate Thursday began with a public hearing on the Board of Finance’s recommended budget, followed by a special joint meeting of the council, the finance board and the Board of Education.
Ralph Zovich, finance board chairman, said the school board had requested $542,289 more than its current budget, which would have been a 2.27 percent increase. The finance board was only willing to give $200,000 more to the schools, an 0.84 percent increase.
The finance board came up with several suggestions for where the schools could make up the shortfall. Zovich outlined a proposal to convert one of the two elementary schools to a pre-K through grade two school and the other to a grade three through five school, with a reduction in the number of classes from 37 to about 33 and increased class average sizes from 18 to 21.
This could save about $250,000, he said, acknowledging that the consolidation process could bring some extra costs.
Of the school district’s 40 special education students currently placed in programs outside the district, one or two could be brought back in district for “a potential savings of $100,000 or more,” Zovich said.
He suggested the district also postpone spending on upgrading technology for the schools, to save another $45,000.
“The Board of Education has the statutory authority to spend the allocation any way they see fit, but the Board of Finance spent a lot of time this year going through their budget and trying to come up with ways that we could suggest savings,” he said.
The suggestions did not go over well with school officials. Superintendent Martin Semmel called the assumptions behind them “a little scary and downright dangerous.”
Semmel said the school board has talked about school consolidation but it couldn’t be done in time for the coming school year. There would have to be discussions with parents and administrators and a study of issues like unemployment costs for laid-off teachers, transportation costs, etc., he said.
As for bringing special education students back in district, “if it was that simple the Board of Education would absolutely have taken the opportunity [to do so], but it’s about making sure all of our children get the most appropriate education for them,” he said.
Melissa Johnson, school board chair, said she was “absolutely appalled” at the idea that the district could just recall a couple of special education students from their out-of-district programs. She called it “disheartening and disrespectful to the families that we service.”
Semmel further pointed out that the finance board gave the schools an 0.84 percent increase but saw fit to give the general government side of the budget a 5.83 percent increase.
He noted that Zovich has encouraged local high school graduates to return to town after college to buy homes and raise their families here. Why should young people settle in a town that doesn’t prioritize education or technology in the schools? Semmel asked. “We need to give people a reason to come back.”
The finance board had also nixed the school board’s proposal to help fund restoring a School Resource Officer (SRO) to the police department.
The problem is from an accounting standpoint “having one department subsidize the salary line item of another department is not very good, because the minute that money goes into the school budget the Board of Finance loses control over it,” Zovich said.
After discussion of the importance of having an SRO in the schools, the finance board voted 3-2 to add some $68,000 to the police portion of the budget to fund the SRO, for a total budget of $40,925,552 and a mill rate of 39.53. Members Victoria Carey and Pattie DeHuff voted against the addition.
However, none of the finance board members were willing to make a motion to add money to the school budget. Then when it came to presenting the modified budget to the council the finance board vote was unanimous.
Mayor David Merchant noted that it looks like a big jump for the mill rate but the town’s property revaluation this year means some residents saw a drop in their property values so they will not be paying more in taxes.
Merchant said he hopes people will support the budget at the referendum, because he doesn’t want it to go through two failed referendums only for the council to end up deciding the final budget, as happened the two previous years.
Copies of the budget are available in the Town Clerk’s office, as well as online at the town website www.plymouthct.us .
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.