Selectmen Ask Region 7 to Trim Budget Proposal

The Region 7 Board of Education gave town officials from the four member towns a preview of expected spending in the 2024-25 school year Wednesday night, detailing the biggest increases in a $21,937,589 adjusted budget. 

The total budget would increase by $850,140 or 3.92 percent if passed as presented. There are projected to be 750 students next year in the middle and high school. That is down sharply from the average of about 1,000 students in recent years.

While New Hartford, the largest of the four towns, pays more than half of the costs of the school, this year Norfolk will have the largest percentage increase at 19.12 percent. Each town’s assessment is based on the numbers of students attending as compared to the other towns.

“We are in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said First Selectman Matt Riiska. “We had a small class graduate from Region 7 last year and a big one come in.

This year, Barkhamsted, which has endured significant increases in the past few years, will see a reduction because 29 fewer students will attend. Colebrook will send eight fewer students, New Hartford is down 11 and Norfolk is up by eight.

“It’s a very significant increase, $345,000,” said Riiska. “The cost is ridiculous.”

Wednesday night he pleaded with the regional board members to do what they could to trim expenses. “I think it’s an excellent school,” he said, “but I looked at the budget, and after I fell out of my chair, I am here to plead with you to do that you can lower that.”

He told the board last year was “horrible” for Norfolk financially with about $1 million in unexpected costs, some of which he hopes to recoup through insurance. 

All the town officials at the meeting were concerned about falling enrollments, both in their local schools and at Region 7. “I understand you have to have a teacher, if it’s five students or 25,” Riiska said, “but I would ask you to look at that a little closer.”

New Hartford First Selectman Dan Jerram noted that the number of teachers still hovers around 135 despite the falling enrollment and said the region must look closely the issue. “How will you take on this challenge?” he asked.

Enrollments are expected to continue to decrease through the end of the decade.

Region 7 Board Chairman Molly Sexton Reed said that budget does not include any new programs and reflects a reduction in staff by 2.5 teachers. Staff reductions are being achieved through attrition. For example, the Chinese program was eliminated when its teacher retired.

She said the budget is “very preliminary” and would be reviewed at a budget workshop before being taken to the individual towns for presentations. 

Giving a “very broad-brush” overview of the increases, she said, “The two biggest drivers are special education, where we had one or two students that we hadn’t budgeted for this year, and two coming in that are currently outplaced. The other major driver is the health insurance increase, which is up 10.95 percent. There is a 2.47 percent increase from those two factors alone.”

Another factor is a decrease in revenues from fewer out-of-district students paying tuition and a reduction in vo-ag funding from the state.  Sexton Reed said the school is trying to market itself to neighboring towns, which send students on a tuition basis, and is opposing the change in vo-ag funding.  

The yearly cost per pupil at the school is $25,453, placing it fourth among the nine Berkshire League schools.

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