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School Costs Rise, but Board of Finance Unmoved

Plea for small increase meets with little sympathy

 

By Wiley Wood

In an early skirmish of the town budget wars, the Board of Finance delivered strong messages to the Regional No. 7 Board of Education and to the Norfolk Board of Education that this was not a year for budget increases.

School Superintendant Mary Beth Iacobelli presented a first look at next year’s Botelle School budget at a Board of Finance meeting on January 10.

She began by explaining that the school faced $160,000 in unavoidable new costs. A special-needs student who arrived unexpectedly during the present year would require $100,000 for transportation and services. Negotiations with the teachers union had brought a salary increase of $25,000 per year for the next three years. A mandated upgrade to the website and four new convectors accounted for most of the rest.

By scrimping at every possible turn, Iacobelli had managed to find $135,000 in cost reductions.

“We have zeroed out every line item with new equipment, whether instructional or non-instructional,” said Iacobelli. “There is nothing in the budget if a snow blower goes or a leaf blower is needed. We’re anticipating a very good year where nothing breaks.”

That still leaves $24,000 of added costs, or a 1 percent increase over last year’s budget. This, Iacobelli noted, would bring the 2018-19 budget to the funding level of two budgets ago.

“And at this point,” said Iacobelli, “we really cannot cut any more without making staff cuts. We have shaved everything that can possibly be shaved, we have gone to great lengths to make this as lean and as mean as we can.”

Michael Sconyers, chairman of the Board of Finance, responded that the salary negotiations were an ominous sign for the years ahead. “You’ve built in $25,000 budget increases for each of the next three years,” said Sconyers. “In the third year, that’s $75,000 or 3 percent.”

Iacobelli asked for “a little bit of direction” from the Board of Finance. “If you know right now that we are going to be flat-funded,” said Iacobelli, “if you know right now that there are going to be additional cuts, the longer I have to work with that information the better.”

“Let me give you a couple of clues,” said Sconyers, who is historically averse to raising taxes. “The grand list is going down and not up.” Sconyers was referring to the town’s tax base, the aggregate value of its taxable property. In years when the grand list goes down, the town must increase taxes to maintain its revenue level.

“We put $300,000 into the budget this year from the positive fund balance,” Sconyers continued. “It was a surplus, but it’s not going to be there in July of 2018.” Here, Sconyers is referring to the fund that collects the town’s unspent tax dollars. When it reaches a level beyond what is needed for contingencies, the excess can be applied to the town’s operating expenses. That happened last year, reducing the town’s tax bill, but it is not expected to happen this year.

“You’re talking about lean and mean,” said Sconyers, “but it’s going to be ugly.”

“We have told Region 7,” Sconyers continued, “that you simply cannot keep increasing your budget. The population is not growing, no one’s grand list is going up, and I have no reason to think the state is going to increase allocations to us.”

In closing, Sconyers encouraged Iacobelli to prepare as full a narrative as possible for the town’s budget hearing, which is scheduled for mid-April.

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