NORTH STONINGTON — In a town where budgets don’t pass easily, voters approved the town’s 2017-18 municipal budget but rejected the zero-increase education budget in Monday’s referendum, which had a light turnout of 579 voters.
The referendum was a year and a day after the town’s third budget referendum last year, when residents finally approved the government budget for 2016-17. The 2016-17 education budget was approved at the town’s second referendum on Sept. 20 last year.
This year, the $6.38 million town budget, which represented a 6.1 percent increase over the previous year, was approved on a vote of 308-271. The proposed $12.87 million education budget, which included a zero percent increase, lost 294-284.
Superintendent of Schools Peter Nero said Tuesday that the education budget has been level-funded for four of the seven years of his tenure, and that continuing to manage without an increase was becoming increasingly difficult. As things stand, the school system’s revenue might not be enough to last the year, he said.
“I’m going to the Board of Finance meeting tomorrow night and if they gave me 1 or 2percent, I’d be in the ballpark, but the fact of the matter is I don’t know where I’ll stand at the end of the year, despite the budget, even if it passed. You can’t continually zeroing the budget.”
Nero said part of the problem was a lack of communication with the voters, which he hoped would improve with the newly elected finance board.
“One year my budget increased by 4.79 percent and the Board of Finance explained it to the voters and got it out there; this time, it was very silent,” he said. “I’m hoping with the new Board of Finance we’ll have some open discussions and dialogue going forward.”
Nero said that in his first year the district was able to save money when teachers agreed to a high-deductible health plan, and all district employees accepted the plan over the next few years.
“That allowed the district to fund the budget with very small or no increases,” he said.
Nero noted that at a minimum, the education budget must be level-funded annually. Otherwise the school district would violate the state’s maintenance of effort requirement that funding remain constant from year to year, he said.
This year’s budget was the last time that the district could keep its programs and staff at present levels with no budget increase, Nero said.
“I’ve been at zero, pecking away and cutting away; but last year I said I will not be able to do this again — I cannot do it and maintain my programs and my salaries and wages,” he said. “We are going back to ask for direction from the Board of Finance.”
First Selectman Mike Urgo said Tuesday that the Board of Selectmen would also look for solutions in collaboration with the Board of Finance.
“What we’ll do is we’ll go the Board of Finance meeting tomorrow night and we’ll get together as a team and discuss what options we have and what our course of action will be,” Urgo said. “My whole thing is trying to have a really open dialogue with the boards and commissions to make more collaborative decisions.”