The budget season got under way in earnest Tuesday night, when the joint membership of the Boards of Selectmen and Finance took their first deep dive into the Board of Education budget proposed for 2013-14.
The school board had asked approval for $155.8 million in the new fiscal year, but that request was trimmed to $154.7 by First Selectman Michael Tetreau.
Tetreau's overall budget proposal totals $287 million for the fiscal year starting July 1, which would require a 6.3 percent tax hike if no cuts are made.
The bulk of the school board increase is attributed to health insurance, pensions and salaries.
"How much do the mandates cost?" Finance Board Chairman Thomas Flynn wanted to know about school costs.
That answer, Superintendent of Schools David Title said, is not so straightforward.
"When you think about it, the entire public school system is a mandate," Title said. "The question is, how much beyond the mandates do we want to do? I think it's really squishy math to say, `This percentage of our budget is mandates.' "
One example is educating students with disabilities from ages 3 to 21.
"That's a federal law," Title said, first passed in 1975 that was to be about 40 percent funded with federal dollars.
Some of the federal funds the district receives, he said, will help pay for additional paraprofessionals for special education.
"This is their attempt to help us out," the superintendent said. "We also get some state funding for the mandate."
Some newer mandates include school policies to deal with bullying, new "common core" state standards, more rigorous statewide assessments and new teacher evaluations.
"That's a new, wonderful mandate," Title said, referring to the evaluations. "We've always had to do teacher evaluations" but now the state is regulating how often those evaluations will be done and the form they will take. "The mandates keep coming," he said.
According to the school board, state education reform initiatives will require additional software acquisition, upgraded technology for computer-based testing, new curriculum and instruction for the "common core" and an increased workload for all administrators.
Title said he will put together a list of mandated state and federal education programs for town officials. "It will make your head spin," he said.
Finance Vice Chairman Robert Bellitto Jr. brought up the public's perception -- right or not -- that the school district is heavy on administrators. In their presentation, school district officials said while the teaching staff has grown to match rising enrollment, all other schools' staff, including administrators, has been "flat or declining."
"I don't think a lot of people know what those people do," Bellitto said. "I'm not absolutely clear on the day-to-day duties of a curriculum leader."
He suggested an organizational chart, along with job descriptions, might help the Board of Education as much as the Finance Board gain a better understanding of resposnsibilities.
"I'm actually going to put together a section on the website on the curriculum leaders," Title said.
Of the 44 administrators in the district, "the vast majority of these folks are based in the schools," he said. Flynn said he gets a "fair amount" of information from one his teenagers who attends high school in town.
"She will say she's never met several of these administrators," he said.
Title joked that not having a lot of contact with a high school headmaster is normally seen as a good thing, but agreed to provide the boards with job titles and descriptions of the school system's administrators.
"Cuts will have to be made," he said. "That's what it comes down to."
If the overall municipal budget were to be adopted without any cuts to either the town or education spending plans, the tax rate would increase to 24.86 mills. On a home assessed at $350,000, the tax bill would increase from $8,179 to $8,701.
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