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Town boards present budgets to Board of Finance

Published 4:51 pm, Thursday, March 6, 2014
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The Board of Finance and Board of Education were at an impasse about the addition of more staff following the school board's 2014-15 budget presentation on Tuesday, March 4.

Board of Education Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross presented the schools' proposed $88,135,967 budget, a 5.9 percent increase over the 2013-14 budget. The total proposed 2014-15 municipal budget is $132,794,157, which represents a 5.65 percent increase, or $7,102,604, over the 2013-14 budget.

Following the presentation, Board of Finance Chairman Liz Mao started asking questions about the proposed hiring of seven special-education facilitators.

"Two years ago, we sat here and debated at length the addition of assistant principals at each of the schools," Mao said. "And the purpose of adding that extra layer of administrator was to handle (Parent and Placement Team) meetings, etc. Now we're being asked to bring in another 6.6 special-education people.

"We don't even have a new superintendent yet. Don't you think it would be better to get a superintendent in place to take part in the interviewing and hiring of such important people?"

"No," Hagerty-Ross said. "At this point, this is the recommendation of the Board of Education."

Hagerty-Ross told the finance board that the district has had conversations with special-education experts and the state Department of Education to find the best possible solution to resolve the issues that were uncovered in the special-education department.

"They will be the expert of the law in the schools," Hagerty-Ross said. "That is what we are missing this year and this is what we were missing in the past."

Mao said the addition of the staff will add $1 million to the annual budget each year with the added salaries, benefits and pensions.

"And the Board of Ed really doesn't think we need a leader in place first?" Mao said.

"We have a very expert leader in place," Hagerty-Ross said, gesturing toward interim Superintendent Lynne Pierson, who was in attendance. Pierson was hired in November following the resignation of Stephen Falcone in October.

"Who will be leaving us," Mao said, of Pierson.

"And who has set the path that we need to follow at this point in time," Hagerty-Ross replied.

Board of Finance member Jamie McLaughlin said he knows the Board of Education wants to heal from the last year.

"So do we," McLaughlin said. "But we're not working in a financial vacuum here and that's the problem. In some ways, we're running under the cover of the healing process and `Let's do whatever it takes.' It seems like this layer is a big expense."

The facilitators each would be paid $86,088, which would cost the district $568,181 for their salaries alone.

Hagerty-Ross told the Board of Finance that she did not feel it was appropriate to discuss the "ins and outs" of what she had presented. The boards of Finance and Education are set to meet in April to discuss the budget.

During her presentation, Hagerty-Ross said the district has faced a challenge during the last year after it was uncovered there were illegal practices within the special-education department. Since the discovery, the district has hired several experts to evaluate, investigate and help resolve the problems in the department.

"The rebuilding of our schools' infrastructures will take many years," Hagerty-Ross said.

Hagerty-Ross said the Board of Eduction was expected to run a deficit of $725,000 for the 2013-14 school year and would approach the Board of Finance for a special appropriation in the spring.

"There are signals in our daily government activity that the pulse is coming back in our local economy," First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said. "Zoning and building permit activity has increased significantly, although not yet comparable to the years preceding the Great Recession of 2008. Town clerk revenue is up, parks and recreation fees are strong, and tax collections consistently exceed our collection-rate policy."

Stevenson presented the Board of Selectmen's $44,685,190 proposed 2014-15 budget.

"I can assure you that the Board of Selectmen is fully cognizant of the spending for non-educational services, although our singular focus is on managing spending for non-educational services," Stevenson said.

Stevenson said there has been "zero support" for reducing or eliminating town services.

"Any decisions to reduce or eliminate taxpayer services must require input from the taxpayers -- not be unilaterally mandated by the Board of Selectmen," Stevenson said.

During the Board of Selectmen's budget process, only one resident -- Nick DeMarco -- spoke about the burden increased taxes are placing on the residents.

"We are elected to serve and we need your input," Stevenson said.

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6538; @Meg_DarienNews