Arguments for and against keeping Chalk Hill School open and over whether or not to cut the Board of Education's spending proposal dominated discussion in a public budget hearing hosted by the Board of Finance at Masuk High School Monday night.
Snowy weather on Feb. 29 had led to the postponement of the original hearing date, so Board of Finance Chairman Mark Reed explained that a workshop had already been held last week to keep the process moving on schedule for a referendum vote on April 3.
Reed said preliminary numbers show the total increase in expenditures could be under one percent, but stressed that the numbers are still being worked out.
During last week's budget workshop, there was tentative agreement on a few things. Among them, Reed said the board supports adding $100,000 to the operating budget, which is needed for costs associated with $2 million in bonding to maintain and upgrade the town's roadways.
"Please keep in mind that the passing of the budget does not equate to approving the bonding, which is voted on at a subsequent Town Meeting," Reed said. "If it's not passed at a Town Meeting, the $100,000 is put back into the undesignated fund balance."
Reed added that the numbers still have to be worked out and that the bonding costs may come in lower than $100,000.
He said the board does not agree with $3 million the Town Council had approved for town hall renovations.
"We think the plans are premature," Reed said. Though he added that the finance board supports an $80,000 study of all town buildings.
The Town Council had voted to recommend taking $360,000 from the undesignated fund balance as seed money for the Monroe Volunteer Emergency Medical Service to pursue its own paramedic service. But Reed said, "The board is strongly opposed to taking any money out of the undesignated fund balance, but we could have it in the operating budget."
The chairman said EMS was asked to provide more accurate numbers to the board.
The Board of Finance wants to build up the fund balance to improve the town's bond rating, according to Reed.
Reed and Board of Finance member Michael Manjos have also suggested that the Board of Education use its rollover enterprise funds and some of its medical reserve — which they believe is overfunded — to bring its requested spending increase of 1.79 percent down to zero.
Reed noted that this would not cut any school programs.
He encouraged townspeople to email board members with any comments and questions.
Steve Kirsch asked the board to put more money in for roads.
"I know you're talking about $2 million," he said. "I don't think it's enough to get the roads to where they need to be. The Public Works director had talked about $2.4 or $2.5 million."
Kirsch also asked that more money from the operating budget be used to maintain the town's roads rather than bonding and paying interest on it year after year.
Ernie LaFollette asked the Board of Finance not to approve the $360,000 for a paramedic service.
"I know it's a good issue. It's an apple pie thing," he said. But if the EMS runs its own service, LaFollette said there would be employee salaries and benefits and legal liability for malpractice lawsuits.
"Somebody needs to put in the adult supervision and I'm glad about what you're doing," LaFollette said of the Board of Finance's role in the town budget process.
Steve Schapiro praised the Board of Finance for growing the undesignated fund balance to improve the bond rating. He also suggested that its meetings be televised like the Board of Education's meetings are.
Schapiro asked the Board of Finance to calculate what the town is spending for health and dental insurance per employee and teacher and see what the town can do to control the costs.
Michael Donlan said there has been a 25 percent decline in student enrollment for the town's public schools, so the school system should be returning money to the town.
"Why aren't we closing Monroe Elementary School next fall?" Donlan asked, adding that the town's elementary schools would be at 81-percent student capacity after such a move.
Donlan recommended taking $5.5 million out of the Board of Education budget and offering to give about $4.5 million back if it ends all of the activity fees it charges students.
Of student enrollment declining without a decrease in the education budget, Donlan asked, "Why are we paying tuition for 1,000 kids who are gone?"
Board of Education member Dr. Alan Vaglivelo said the reduction in student enrollment was below 25 percent. "It's not that high and it's spread over hundreds of classrooms."
Kirsch said enrollment dropped by 801 students since 2005-06 and questioned whether or not there was adequate staffing back then. And he said staffing would not go down at the same rate because it includes uncertified staff such as custodians and an electrician.
Though enrollment has gone down, Kirsch said it is not the only thing that drives costs, citing expenses like health insurance and utilities which continue to increase.
Susan Koneff, former president of the Monroe Education Assocation, spoke in support of the Board of Education's spending request.
"I listened to your presentation last Monday night," Koneff said of Reed and Manjos' proposal to bring the Board of Education's requested increase down to zero. "You made some salient points" but the school board was being prudent in how much it funded the medical fund.
When education costs are not maintained, Koneff said it could cost more down the road.
"I thought the Board of Education was very conservative," she said. I support the 1.7 percent increase and a creative solution to keep Chalk Hill open."
Bernie Sippin said Monroe's teachers are paid among the highest in the state and that students do not score as well on standardized tests as students in other towns. He said you cannot throw money at the schools and make them better.
"The one thing about Monroe is our taxes increase every year," Sippin said. "We need some financial responsibility in Monroe, so we all can live a little better."
Chalk Hill currently houses the Monroe Early Learning Center, the Parks & Recreation Department offices and EMS training classes.
Joan Mason, who works at the daycare center, asked Board of Finance members to envision what could happen years after Chalk Hill is "mothballed." She said part of the building could become dilapidated, there could be water damage, kids could vandalize it and pigeons could nest on the roof.
Mason said parents thinking of moving to Monroe would have to drive past Chalk Hill to look at Jockey Hollow Middle School. "Passing that building boarded up, this wouldn't be inviting to me as a parent," she said.
Mason said she spoke to contractors in several states and estimates it would cost the town $1.5 million "just to put the key in the door" if it decided to reopen the building.
Dawn Ryan, director of the Monroe Early Learning Center, spoke in favor of keeping the building open for her daycare business and as someone who lives in town and pays taxes.
"It's a building that has 90,000 square feet. Mothballing it is not proactive," she said. "I think we need to think about the cost to keep it open and to close it and look at that delta to see if that money can be raised."
Koneff said she believes there was a serious lack of leadership in coming up with a plan to generate revenue with Chalk Hill. She said it could have been used as a school for children who are hearing impaired.
Greg Tuba, the interim recreation coordinator for Parks & Recreation, urged the town to look at what the building can offer before closing it.
Sippin said the town closed the wrong school. He believes it should have closed Monroe Elementary School, which he said would be a better place for the daycare center.
Jennifer Aguilar said, "My sixth grader cannot take Spanish because we lost that. We've lost a lot. Things in this town don't come back. We won't get Chalk Hill back."
Vaglivelo said he had met someone at Hall-Brook hospital who expressed interest in buying Chalk Hill. "I gave him [First Selectman] Steve Vavrek's email," he said. "I don't know what came of that."
Vavrek could be heard saying, "Nothing," from his seat in the auditorium.
Donlan said he would mothball Chalk Hill and maintain its facade until the town is growing again and needs the building. Then he said it could be renovated without disrupting any uses inside.
Schapiro recalled how there was a major meeting at Masuk nine or 10 months ago in which the future of Chalk Hill was discussed, but that not much has happened since then. Now it would cost about $440,000 to keep it open with a significant deficit in revenue, he added.
"I'm not against Chalk Hill," Schapiro said. "My kids went there and I coached basketball there, but I think the Board of Finance did the right thing taking it out of there."