By Bettina Thiel – Orange Town News Correspondent
Amity School Supt. Charles Dumais introduced the proposed 2015-16 budget, showing a 2.12% increase over this year’s expenditures, at the February 19 joint meeting of the Woodbridge Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance. The proposed budget for the district, which includes the high school and two middle schools, is for $47 million, $976,415 higher than the current budget. Member town allocations are suggested as follows:
Bethany $9.466,530, a $261,840 increase;
Orange $22.461,127, a $702,940 increase;
Woodbridge $13,542,972, an increase of $297,167.
The difference between the $45.5 million raised from the member towns and the $47 million in expenditures would be raised through other revenue sources, such as state grants, also a $150,000 transfer from this year’s fund balance and other miscellaneous income. It should also be noted that although the budget shows a 2.12% increase, the share paid by the three towns actually increases by 2.85%.
The expenditure increase is due mainly to salaries ($390,525 increase) and benefits ($269,704,) but also to catch up with some expenditures deferred in the past, such as text book purchases ($110,000) and buildings and grounds ($343,000). The biggest textbook expense is for new materials in economics, which is part of the new Common Core-driven Social Studies curriculum. Building and ground improvements include the Orange natural gas conversion ($60,000); a $100,000 contingency for capital and non-recurring expenditures, re-sodding the crown of the football field ($16,000); high school stone repairs ($95,000) and miscellaneous asphalt repairs.
In staffing, the budget suggests elimination of two full-time positions (-$100,000), but adds $37,900 for a special education teacher and a paraprofessional for the Transition Program; also adds a technician at the middle school level and increased hours for insurance clerk; adds a girls golf coach. A new feature in this budget is the inclusion of capital improvement projects, and a five-year plan to avoid expenditure spikes. It also includes a proposal for bonding for $2 million in 2016 and bonding again in 2019-20.
In his presentation, Dumais made reference to the book “Making Thinking Visible,” a New York Times bestseller on how to enhance student thinking by having them verbalize the pathway to their answer. It’s this philosophy that the superintendent adopted to make his budget presentation as transparent as possible, showing not just the numbers, but the reasoning behind it. He lists in detail capital requests that were deferred, the biggest of which are library renovations at the Bethany Middle School library; a heat exchanger for the high school, updates to the conputer science classroom; lights on the soccer/lacrosse field and garage bay storage.
Some of these requests are on the list for proposed bonding in 2016, which includes the following items:
- $370,000 for a heat exchanger for the fuel cell; $161,000 for updates to the Consumer Science room; $575,000 for air handler replacement; $350,000 for asphalt sealing; $400,000 to resurface the tennis courts.
- Fund balance.
The district has been criticized in the past for putting forth a “bare bones” budget, but then ending the year with fat surpluses. Dumais in his budget narrative, delves into the question how fund balances happened and what they were used for, going back to 2006.
Surpluses occur through financial management (cost savings), unpredictable special education costs and other unforeseen situations such as resignations, state grants and such. They actually make up about 1.7% of the total budget. About a third of those savings was used for non-budgeted items, a little over a third was assigned to the following year’s budget and a little under a third was returned to member towns. “Both the fund assigned to next year’s budget and returned to the member towns reduce the taxpayers’ burden,” he said. Even so, the district is taking steps to bring the amount of money moved from year to year down. In this budget proposal it is capped at $150,000. The board also lowered the health insurance reserve.
As a regional district, Amity cannot maintain a reserve for operating expenditures, only for capital expenditures and some limited trust funds. However, fund balances may be used to pay for over-expenditures in some accounts and unanticipated major facility repairs.
The district has received five consecutive clean audits, with no recommendation for improvements in its accounting practices, he emphasized in his presentation in Woodbridge. Last summer, the district got some heat for not returning enough money to the towns. Instead, the board decided to fund the self-insurance reserve fund and an HVAC upgrade in Orange. This budget seems to be responsive to the concerns raised by the member towns.
Referring to a recent study done at the University of Connecticut, Dumais said the Amity District was found to be “fully efficient”. The study looked at input (funding) and output (test scores) and found 21 schools at the top of the scale. Amity was one of them.
The public hearing on the Amity budget is Monday, April 6; the budget referendum is Wednesday, May 6.