With the budget season looming and a for Tolland schools, elected officials looked to Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman for guidance during a well-attended meeting on Thursday night.
Wyman was able to provide tips and promised to bring Tolland input back to the state capitol, but she acknowledged that the town could have a difficult time reconciling the needs of the town and school budgets with tax levels that may or may not be acceptable to Tolland residents.
"The governor and I believe that the property tax is the most regressive tax we have," Wyman said, adding, "We [the state] have not funded at the level that we should be funding. It's a financial fight all the time."
While the discussion ranged from topics like unfunded state mandates to teacher unions, many of the questions ultimately focused on how Tolland can prevent or mitigate tax increases without losing town services or risking declining school quality.
"The idea that we need specialized training in schools, a high-tech work force, an engineering focus is very key," said council member Josh Freeman. "We're trying to maintain in our school district. How do we transform our school district into the type of district that can actually produce high-tech, high-precision, highly trained adults?"
While Wyman said that several key funding factors, such as the ECS formula, are being evaluated at the state level, she said that Tolland can take action by uniting with other districts for regional insurance and regional purchasing power.
"I do believe that pooling from different towns will get your cost down a lot," Wyman said, adding that research has shown that bringing municipality employees into the state employee insurance program, or alternatively, regional programs, could theoretically cut insurance costs 15 to 20 percent for some towns.
Superintendent William Guzman pointed out that the school district is through its current provider, Cigna.
After Wyman left the meeting, school board and council members got into a heated discussion on the proposed 5.98 percent increase for the school budget.
Council members Sam Belsito and Benjamin Stanford asked the district to look outside the box for new budget ideas. Belsito suggested studying charter schools to see how their success could be transplanted into the Tolland district, while Stanford asked for figures examining the costliest unfunded mandates for the schools to bring attention to the issue.
"What I'm hearing is that we're doing everything exactly the same," Belsito said. "Keep the taxpayer in mind."
Guzman said that the district would put together numbers concerning the mandates, but also reminded the council and board members that additional budget difficulties arise because schools are becoming responsible for much more than just education.
"It was a long time ago that parents said to the schools, 'Take my child and educate them.' Nowadays, it's, 'Take my child and raise them,'" Guzman said, citing new legislation that requires schools to monitor bullying that happens online or through text during non-school hours.
Board of Education Chairperson Andy Powell asked the council to support the school board's proposed budget and ultimately leave the tax level and quality of Tolland schools to Tolland voters.
"Let the taxpayers decide," he said. "Put our number forward as a whole."
The town council's next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m. The Board of Education will meet on Jan. 25 at 7:30 p.m.