Milford schools defend budget plan to finance board

Milford’s new school superintendent didn’t get the warmest welcome at her first Board of Finance budget vote March 18, when two members took the school board to task and tried to cut $600,000 from the school spending plan.

Anna Cutaia started her job this past summer and this is her first Milford budget plan.

Her $95.08 million proposal for the 2019-20 school year, which marks an increase of 1.89 percent over the current year’s spending plan, got rave reviews from the Board of Education in February when its members voted unanimously to support it.

But finance board members Joseph Fitzpatrick Jr. (D) and Joseph Castignoli (D) suggested cutting the school board’s proposal by $600,000 because the schools ended the last two years with a surplus, and they think there will be a big surplus again this year.

School Chief Operations Officer James Richetelli Jr. said the money is not considered surplus because it is used to fund building and grounds projects that need to be tackled.

“All of our buildings are old and require a lot of work,” Richetelli said, adding that only a small percentage of projects are budgeted to keep the spending increase to a minimum. But if money is left over at the end of the year, it is used to target some of those projects.

School board members answered similar questions at a technical budget discussion March 7, refuting claims mostly from Fitzpatrick that the school board wasn’t being transparent about its spending and was “skirting the budget process.”

Richetelli talked at length about huge budget swings that occur if there are more or fewer retirements than anticipated. “We budget for 18,” Richetelli said. “Last year, there were 12 or 13, so there was a surplus. This year, 17 retired already, so we know we will have a shortfall in that account this year.”

School Board Chairman Susan Glennon also weighed in at the March 7 meeting. She said the school board has been funding building and grounds projects this way for years, and when the school board tried to change that up last year, the finance board squashed it.

“Last year, the board attempted to be a little bit more proactive with our buildings and grounds account,” Glennon said. “We added $300,000 to the superintendent’s request. We wanted to say up front ‘we want to do more,’ and that money was reduced by this [finance] board. So we were put back into the situation where, to get the work done on our buildings and grounds that we need to do, we have to resort to using overages that are left at the end of the year.”

Mayor Ben Blake came to the school board’s defense, saying that over the last several years, the school administration has come in with conservative budget increases, which has helped to keep the city’s overall spending and taxes flat.

“They do look at the fluff, the fat, and they trim before it gets to your board, or the Board of Education,” Blake said.

But Fitzpatrick and Castignoli stuck to their argument. Fitzpatrick also said he was concerned that student enrollment has been decreasing and the board hasn’t voted to shut one of the schools.

Finance Board Chairman Brian Lema (D) agreed the school board has to look at its facilities, but said that doesn’t mean the 2019-20 request should be cut.

“We continue to lose approximately 100 students a year, almost a 1,000 students over the last decade, so structurally something needs to be considered,” Lema said. “But having said that, we’re still dealing with the number of schools and the number of teachers for this immediate budget. So I am reluctant to simply reduce the requested increase by that amount of money.”

The Board of Finance ultimately voted March 18 to support the school board’s budget request as submitted for 2019-20 by a 3-2 vote. Lema, Lauren Ranges (R), and Scott Moulton (R) voted to honor the request, while Fitzpatrick and Castignoli voted against it.

Aside from technical changes, the city and schools’ spending plan was approved by the finance board as presented, and now will go before the Board of Aldermen for review.

The budget plan calls for spending $216.53 million, a proposed spending hike of about $6.3 million, or 3 percent over the current year. The tax rate would be 27.68, which is a 0.06 reduction from the current tax rate of 27.74. The mayor said those numbers are better than initially projected because of increases in the grand list.

For the resident with the typical home that has a market value of $311,070, that will mean a tax decrease of $13, the fourth straight year that Milford sees a modest decrease.

The spending plan will now move to the Board of Aldermen for review, starting with a public hearing at 7 p.m. April 4 at Milford City Hall. The aldermen will vote on a new budget and set the new mill rate in mid-May.