Montville council overrides mayor’s veto, keeps school budget cuts

Montville — After getting an earful from a packed house of parents, teachers and students pushing for about $250,000 to be restored in next year’s education budget, the Town Council this week held fast to the $38.6 million spending plan it approved May 13, leaving school officials saying they’ll be forced to choose what positions or services may face elimination.

The school board in March approved a $39.5 million budget that included a return of middle school sports, elementary school field trips and three new district positions: a social worker, maintenance worker and custodian. Mayor Ron McDaniel shaved that figure by $500,000 in his April budget proposal. The Town Council, in approving a total $61.6 million town budget, then reduced the education budget by another $246,771, leaving the school district $38.6 million to work with and prompting a veto from McDaniel, who called the council’s reductions excessive.

Not only are the new positions and field trips unlikely to make the final budget, school officials said the total three-quarters-of-a-million-dollars reduction could lead to increased class sizes with potential staffing cuts, either through retirements or current teaching positions, along with cuts to supplies, assessment programs and a program that leases student laptops.

Parents, students and school board members filled Town Hall on Tuesday night to lambaste the reductions and especially the council’s push to override the mayor’s veto, saying the potential cuts to staff and services would hurt the district and render the town less attractive to homebuyers who’d otherwise boost the tax base.

“We’ve lost field trips, we’ve lost nursing programs. The list goes on and on,” said Colleen Rix, a parent and school board member. “When is enough enough? When can we just fund for the education of our kids? We ask for things that we need and little things we want to make us competitive.”

In a 5-1 vote, the council overrode the mayor’s veto, with multiple councilors saying the final budget they had produced was fair for all taxpayers even if it rankled the dozens who came out to support the school district.

Councilor Wills Pike, the Finance Committee Chairman, said the move to reduce the budget was an informed decision that was not taken lightly and not punitive. He noted the council had agreed to fund more than $1 million in capital improvement projects over the last two years, which he said was unprecedented.

Pike also challenged taxpayers to vigorously question the Board of Education about its spending rather than chastising the council for tightening belts during budget season. He noted the school board had overspent on outsourcing transportation and also had approved hefty payouts of administrators who'd either resigned or been placed on leave over the last few years.

“I don’t play with numbers. I don’t play with people’s emotions,” Pike said. “None of you ever ask the questions of the Board of Education, but you come in here and make us look like Ebenezer Scrooges. And we’re not. There are reasons why we make decisions.”

Council Chairman Tom McNally, who spent eight years as a school board member, said “nobody up here is against the education system at all. Every single one of us has either been through the school system, or had kids currently or in the past in the system.”

McNally said the council balanced the budget to the best of its ability, taking into consideration both operating costs and infrastructure improvements for the school district to address crumbling staircases, leaky roofs and windows that won’t open. Capital projects lined up in the budget include a $255,000 roof repair at Murphy Elementary School, a new fire pump for $73,000 at Leonard J. Tyl Middle School and replacement vans for $53,000.

“If we use the money for the education side, you’re not going to have buildings to educate the kids in,” McNally said, adding that every department in the town requested more money than the mayor and council approved.

Councilor Joe Jaskiewicz, who voted in favor of the budget, backed the veto on Tuesday, saying that his constituents had convinced him to side with the mayor. Councilor Billy Caron, the lone vote against the budget, was not in attendance but previously had said that he would have supported the mayor’s veto.

Caron had argued that he couldn't justify voting for the budget, in part because he believed the Town Council had spent too much money last year, including the September $220,000 purchase of a vacant 29-acre site off Route 163 that Town Planner Marcia Vlaun, in an April 2018 property analysis, estimated to be worth only $90,000.

Superintendent Laurie Pallin said Wednesday that the Board of Education and district officials will consider what cuts to make in the coming weeks and finalize decisions at its next meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.

b.kail@theday.com

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