Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
‘Found’ money saves Vernon school budget

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

VERNON — A windfall of found cash in the teachers salary account means the Board of Education can forget about further cuts.

Town Council members learned at their meeting Tuesday that roughly $617,000 was over-budgeted for teacher salaries in the 2007-08 fiscal year — a mistake that was made when school officials added an extra across-the-board step increase in the account for all 342 teachers.

A new contract was ratified in November, giving teachers a 4.61 percent raise. But for Mayor Jason L. McCoy, the numbers didn’t add up, as the increase to the salary account was actually 5.5 percent.

The increase seemed larger than necessary even when step increases — which raise individual teacher salaries based on experience and degree attained — were factored in.

McCoy persisted in questioning the discrepancy, saying “it didn’t make sense.”

So school board member George Apel and Stan Karasinski, the recently hired school finance director, conducted an audit.

In the review, they found 20 teachers had their salary increased by 20 percent, McCoy said.

While the funds were placed in the salary account, the teachers never received the extra, unearned money, Apel said.

It was merely an accounting error, he added.

“The contract was signed in November, and then the finance director retired, and staff were told to just plug in the numbers,” Apel explained. “It was an honest mistake, but luckily it was picked up in time to have an impact on the mill rate.”

According to town Finance Director Jim Luddecke, adding the found money to the budget reduces the tax rate from 30.47 mills to 30.28 mills.

The total proposed budget now stands at $75.45 million, a 3.65 percent increase over the 2007-08 $72.79 million budget. School spending increases 2.78 percent to $45.37 million, up from $44.15 million this year, while the town’s general government side of spending grows to $25.08 million, a 2.66 percent increase over this year’s $24.43 million budget.

Approximately one third of the total budget increase is caused by debt service on bonded projects.

After learning about the windfall, Town Council members Tuesday approved a plan to remove $317,000 from the Board of Education proposed 2008-09 budget and allow the balance of $300,000 to remain.

“This gives us some breathing room,” school board Chairwoman Catherine Rebai said after the council meeting, adding, “I want to compliment the mayor for not taking it all.”

McCoy initially had ordered the school board to cut $675,000 from its original budget request, saying the town instead would cover the cost of, among other things, new math books.

So far, $475,000 in cuts have been made, but the board has been struggling with the where to come up with the remaining $200,000, and had been considering elimination of freshman and middle school sports.

But leaving the $300,000 in the school budget saves the board from having to make further cuts, and also allows the board to finance the $84,900 needed to replace textbooks.

Democratic Council member Michael Winkler, whose suggestion to restore $100,000 to the school budget was shot down during the council workshop sessions last month, said he was pleased that even more was being returned.

He urged school board members to try to restore some paraprofessional positions, of which $89,071 worth was removed.

“Of all the cuts made, the paraprofessionals concern me the most, and if you can ameliorate that, I’d appreciate it,” Winkler said.

Apel said the board members felt comfortable with the reductions made so far, as they were recommended by School Superintendent Richard Paskiewicz and supported by the school principals.

“They know the potential impact of these cuts,” Apel said.

The combined school and town budget goes before voters at the annual town meeting, scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, April 22 at Vernon Center Middle School, 777 Hartford Turnpike.

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