Area school districts adjust to state budget
Updated 9:07 pm, Saturday, November 4, 2017
Months of state budget uncertainty have transitioned into painful reality for a number of area school districts.
In Bridgeport, which had already lost kindergarten aides, the district’s Parent Center and a chunk of its reading and math teachers, there is still a $4 million gap to bridge.
In Fairfield, there is worry the district could be saddled with as much as $1 million in new special education expenses.
And in Stratford, a state budget may be in place, but a municipal one is still waiting until after Tuesday’s election.
“We have no idea whether they will want to pass the loss of $1 million in (Education Cost Sharing) onto the district,” Stratford Schools Superintendent Janet Robinson said. “Certainly, we hope not, as cuts in the middle of the year would be highly disruptive.”
Stratford was one of the districts that saw the largest ECS reduction in the state budget. But the state plan still, finally, gives districts some level of certainty.
How Bridgeport Public Schools plan to make an $8.7 million budget gap disappear:
The school district is receiving flat funding from the state, meaning it had to cut $8 million to accommodate rising costs. Here is the plan:
$2.9 million was cut in July by eliminating the Parent Center, Career/Craftsmanship school, three nurses, and principal substitutes as well as reducing part-timers who do curriculum work, attendance liaisons, math and literacy coaches.
$1.8 million was cut in August with a hiring freeze, reduction in central office staff, putting off online curriculum renewals, reducing the security staff, two administrative positions, and cutting back on parent involvement and school operation allocations.
$2.4 million by draining Internal Service Fund surplus from last year as well as an anticipated surplus this year.
$400,000 by increasing the use of grants for operating expenses where allowed.
$200,000 with more belt tightening and not filling vacancies.
What’s left is a $1 million gap that the district hopes to plug through some combination of furlough days, delaying longevity payments to staff, cutting more instructional coaches, curtailing spring sports, or curtailing all after-school activities except report card conferences.
When it was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy — four months into the fiscal year — the plan gave Connecticut’s 30 neediest school districts just what they got last year, while aid to other districts is to be trimmed by 5 percent.
No school districts get zeroed out in terms of state money, as they would have under the budget Malloy proposed during the spring.
Same as last year
Bridgeport, which had hoped for at least $8 million more, is stuck with the same $181.1 million from the state that it got last year, added to $63.5 million from the city.
“It is good news that the (Education Cost Sharing grant) is flat as opposed to reduced,” said Marlene Siegel, chief financial officer for the city school district.
In a district where budget-deficit prevention mode has become the norm, Siegel was ready to present the school board’s Finance Committee with a plan to sop up the remaining shortfall.
Already having eliminated numerous programs and positions, the district plans to empty its Internal Service Fund balance, which is used to pay employee health insurance claims.
The district has asked both its teachers and administrator unions to consider two furlough days. Both union presidents have said no.
Chopping two days off the school year would save the district $1.75 million. And the unions have also been asked to consider delaying contractual longevity payments, which would save $1 million.
If necessary, the district may also cut back further on its remaining 20 math and literacy coaches, trim spring athletics or cut all after day activities.
“These are items that no one wants to reduce,” Siegel said. “There are limitations to our viable options.”
The goal, she said, is to minimize reductions at the school level as best the district can. A more solid plan is expected to be in place by mid-December.
Board of Education member Ben Walker, a Greenwich teacher, said he was in favor of asking teachers again whether furlough days were a better option than laying off more staff.
“I see us in an emergency situation,” Walker said. “Our backs are against the wall.”
Superintendent of Schools Aresta Johnson said she and her cabinet are willing to take the two furlough days, but the bargaining units have to agree.
Walker also thought it was risky to bank on wiping the internal service fund dry, since one catastrophic illness could send the fund in the red.
Fairfield froze $2.3 million in its budget while the state was still without a spending and revenue plan. Now the town is working to understand the nuances of the state budget before “unfreezing anything,” Schools Superintendent Toni Jones said.
There is concern that Fairfield could be stuck with a new $1 million charge for students placed in residential facilities. Districts have normally paid the education costs in such cases, while the Department of Developmental Services picked up the residential expense.
“In the governor’s budget, he reduced the DDS line item and passed the full cost to the local school district,’ Jones said. “It did not impact very many school districts, but it did impact Fairfield to the cost of approximately $1 million.”
The district is uncertain was uncertain whether that component was in or out of the adopted state budget.
The $1 million in state money in the approved budget for Fairfield is $55,000 less than it received last year and nearly $2.4 million less than what was received in 2015-16.
“The $2.4 million is not coming back, and that is huge,” Jones said.