‘Please don’t mess with the education budget’

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MONROE, CT — Many residents lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic, so town officials, who expect more people to struggle to pay their taxes this year, are trying to keep the next budget as flat as possible.

But some residents worry more spending cuts will hurt Monroe’s public schools, and their written comments dominated submissions for Thursday night’s budget hearing, which participants attended by phone.

“Please don’t bleed our schools,” wrote Alexandra Mack of Williamsburg Drive, one of the education supporters. “I know times are tough for everyone and folks don’t want to pay more taxes, but the schools are our future.”

It was a contrast from the first hearing on April 23, in which the majority of participants pleaded with officials not to raise their taxes. Their turnout in Thursday’s hearing was likely lighter due to the Board of Finance being receptive to First Selectman Ken Kellogg’s request to avoid a tax increase.

Though some participated, like Andrew Vincent, who simply wrote, “reduce budget.”

Others are still upset that Monroe will not have a budget referendum this year, because of Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders meant to provide municipalities with financial stability as Connecticut handles the Covid-19 pandemic.

One resident, whose name was not included in a comment submitted for the hearing, wrote: “I recall we voted AGAINST the town passing budgets without a vote. Delay the vote, or allow us to vote wearing masks. If you pass a budget without a vote, there will be lots of lawsuits. Everyone on my street is FURIOUS. What you are attempting to do is completely fascist.”

The Board of Finance, which is tasked with approving the town budget for 2020-21, expects to vote on a final number on Tuesday. From there, people will still have an opportunity to comment on it before the budget and tax rate is set in early June.

A bad situation

To make up for lost tax revenue from an anticipated drop in the collection rate, the Board of Finance plans to use all but $2 million of the town’s undesignated fund balance, about $8 million, to offset expenses.

Chairman Michael Manjos has also asked that all bargaining units for town employees and teachers forgo raises for one year.

“It’s a bad situation,” he said at a board meeting following Thursday’s hearing. “I believe we need the unions to do this, so we do not have to cut staff.”

Manjos said the request is also to avoid cutting services. The unions have yet to respond.

Steve Kirsch, a board member, pointed out that everything funded through the fund balance and any potential grants from the pandemic will have to be paid for through taxes next year.

Manjos agreed that taxes will go up in 2021-22. He said the town is “mortgaging the future” by using so much of its fund balance, but added his belief that the town will be able to build it back up.

Kirsch expressed concern over the school district’s cut list to absorb reductions to its budget, which includes things like building maintenance, because it will be hard to get those things back.

Acting Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza said, because of the global pandemic and distance learning, he does not know what all of the needs of the school system will be next fall.

But when he does, Manjos said Kobza can submit a plan of what is needed, which the Board of Finance can support.

In response to numerous hearing comments from education supporters, Manjos said, “we are not cutting education. We’re not slashing anything.”

Support for education

Before the Covid-19 outbreak, the first selectman proposed a $91.5 million town budget for fiscal year 2020-21 with a projected 2.6 percent tax increase. The fiscal plan had $59.5 million for education and $31.9 million for town services.

The Board of Education and first selectman had reduced the school funding request by a total of $1 million since Superintendent of Schools Jack Zamary proposed a 5.7 percent spending increase.

Many of those submitting written comments for Thursday’s budget hearing expressed concerns that future cuts could lead to staff cuts, larger class sizes and a drop in property values.

Nick Kapoor and Dr. Alan Vaglivelo, two school board members speaking for themselves, both submitted written comments. Vaglivelo expressed concern over a learning loss from the unprecedented disruption of the current school year, and Kapoor spoke of the difficulty of restoring academic programs that are cut.

“I do not envy your position or the vote that you will soon have to take on our town’s budget,” Kapoor said. “But, please realize that the impacts of your vote will be felt for years to come.”

“Please don’t mess with the education budget,” said Janice Persico of Rodeo Drive. “I’m fine paying more taxes to keep our schools running the way they should be. Good schools is a huge Monroe strength and I’d like to keep it that way.”

Persico said teachers and staff have been amazing with her children, adding, “please give them everything they need to educate our children, especially now, when the future of schooling is unsettled.”

“I just wanted to voice my concern regarding the budget,” said Maureen McMullen of Harvester Road. “I am hoping no further cuts will be made to the education budget as presented by the BOE and Ken Kellogg. I know these are difficult times but education is of utmost importance to me, my family and this community. Thank you for supporting the families who live here.”

Stacey  Sicherman, of Richards Drive, said the school district has been working with budget freezes over the past two years and making additional cuts in education spending now would not only hurt current students, but future ones as well.

“I am not happy that my taxes have almost doubled since I moved here 10 years ago,” Sicherman wrote, “but I also recognize the importance of a good education and place it in high value, along with our teachers. You should too. The schools are the very reason we chose Monroe.”

To read all of the comments residents submitted, click on this link.

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