BETHEL - A $31.9 million proposed budget was approved by the school board Thursday night and sent to the boards of finance and selectmen.

The proposal - which would cover the 2004-05 school year - is about $2.1 million or 7.2 percent higher than the current $29.8 million budget.

That increase is $366,000, or about 1.4 percent, lower than a tentative budget presented by schools Superintendent
Gary Chesley in late January. Most of the savings come from reduced health insurance costs, schools director of fiscal services Jay Hubelbank said.

When Chesley presented his budget last month, he called it "a work in progress" and said the school district was negotiating with its health insurance company to bring down the skyrocketing cost of coverage for the district's employees.

Hubelbank said money would be saved by changing from a self-insured method of coverage to a fully insured one where the cost is fixed.

"I hope to bring it even lower," Hubelbank said.

The schools budget will be presented Wednesday  to a joint meeting of the boards of finance and selectmen. Next month selectmen will finalize their proposed budget for municipal expenses and the
Board of Finance will put together a total town budget to be discussed at a public hearing March 29.

Besides health insurance, other factors fueling the proposed school spending are a newly negotiated teachers' contract and transportation costs. Nearly half of the budget hike - $1 million - is for salary increases, of which $749,000 comes from the recent three-year contract signed with the teachers union.

The district's school bus contract also is up this year and the new contract is expected to cost an additional $150,000.

Under the proposed budget, only one position is added - a fourth custodian at Bethel High School .

"There is nothing new" in the proposal, said school board chairman Matt Knickerbocker . But, he said, the budget will allow the district "to maintain the quality of education" it has established over the past five years.

Even though the budget increase is lower than the original estimate presented by the schools superintendent, it's not as low as Knickerbocker had hoped.

"It's still an increase I'd rather not deal with," said Knickerbocker.

School board members worry that the proposed budget leaves some accounts too low, such as textbooks. But in light of the 7.2 percent hike, said Knickerbocker, the board members decided not to increase any accounts and instead "to deal with them" as best they can within the proposed budget.