Council Votes to Close Board MBR Gap
WETHERSFIELD - A town healthcare fund surplus will cover the Board of Education share of this year’s Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) contribution, allowing the district to close the last of a budget shortfall and lift the budget freeze that jeopardized the high school DECA team’s trip to a national competition.

       The Town Council voted unanimously Monday night to approve the use of over $88,000 in healthcare savings to relieve the Board of paying into OPEB this year, satisfying a state-imposed Minimum Budgeting Requirement (MBR) that rose with a last minute Education Cost Sharing (ECS) fund increase in May.

       “This makes us whole again,” said Superintendent of Schools Mike Emmett over the phone. “We’re hopeful and confident we’ll come in on par with where we need to be.”

       The issue first arose this past fall, when the Board reported a $255,000 overage. At the time, the change in ECS funding from May-the Council actually funded the Board at a 1.9 percent increase-left a $240,000 gap between the town and MRB compliance.

       A midyear cut in ECS funding reduced the differential to about $88,000.

       During discussions, Town Councilors disputed the state’s calculations of the MBR, but pledged to work with the Board to come to a compromise in remedying their deficit.

       “The Town Council and Board of Education communicated and wanted to have a spirit of cooperation,” said Board Chair Bobbie Hughes Granato.

       “In truth, we funded more than less last year,” Mayor Paul Montineri said during the meeting. “Having said that, this is appropriate to get done. We wanted to resolve this and get them through.”

       At Monday night’s meeting, Republican Councilors voiced some criticism toward the Board-pointing to a previous vote not to unfreeze the $4,000 needed by the DECA program-but voted in favor of the MBR-related transfer.

       “It shouldn’t come down to this, so hopefully this is the last of it,” said Councilor Jodie Latina.

       Granato said that releasing the $4,000 for DECA would have showed inconsistency in how the freeze was applied, opening the Board up to requests from other interests.

       “These kids suddenly got caught up in this freeze, which we can unfreeze today,” she said.

       Republican Councilors pointed to the potential for increased costs-possibly in the form of cuts to municipal aid and the imposing of teacher pension payments-while calling for more careful Board budget planning and recognizing the challenges posed by a midyear reduction in ECS.

       But a good portion of the budget deficit was driven by less than predictable special education costs, Emmett has said.

       The meeting kicked off with a lengthy public comment segment that featured a mix of advocates for the MBR transfer approval-for the sake of the DECA students-and proponents of funding for repairs to the aged Cottone Field.

       On the former, town resident Greg Lichatz-who had originally taken the podium to discuss the field-offered to cover the $4,000 for DECA himself if the vote did not pass.

       “It’s for the kids,” he later said. “They deserve it.”

       Each year, students from DECA participate in regional and national business/marketing competitions. The $4,000 will cover a trip to San Francisco if the team-already regional competition bound-qualifies for nationals.