The Board of Education opted to pass its $98,423,760 budget proposal for the 2019-20 school year along to the Board of Finance without any additional cuts Monday, March 11.
The decision come five days after the Board of Selectmen made a non-binding recommendation for the schools to cut $460,000.
The school board did ask Superintendent William Collins to find areas where cuts could be made, suggesting they might be willing to make cuts further along in the budget process.
“Like a lot of Connecticut towns, we’re facing a tough budget year, as we have for a number of years,” said Vice-Chairman Doug Silver, long an opponent of school budget cuts. “I do think it would be wise of us to at least start talking about things that we’re considering, where to ask the superintendent and the team to start considering as they look for [cuts] — that’s a change by the way, normally I think at this point in the process I would not be advocating for that.”
The Board of Selectmen’s non-binding recommendation does not cut the school budget. But its opinion can hold weight with the Board of Finance, who do have the ability to cut from either the school or town’s budget.
Part of the animus behind the selectmen’s recommended cut is a law passed by the state two years ago, which imposes a 2.5% cap on the total budget — town and schools combined — for municipalities.
“We’ve talked about it over the last couple of years, it’s a statute without teeth because the penalty was tied to a grant funding that has since been eliminated,” said Chairwoman Margaret Stamatis.
Under that law, towns can increase their budgets over the 2.5% cap for some things, including debt service and spending on special education, which can be carved out of the the increase.
The selectman’s suggested cut would essentially reduce the school budget to a 2.5% increase — minus $1,022,894 in increased spending for special education, “that’s exempt from the cap,” Stamatis explained.
“It was very interesting that this year they accepted the special education carve out, because the previous two years they haven’t accepted that when we’ve gone before them,” said board member Fran Walton.
The elephant in the room remains whether or not the state will pass along the cost of funding teacher pensions along to the towns.
“Under the governor’s proposed budget, there would be a shifting of some of the obligations for the teachers’ retirement pension coming to the municipalities,” said Stamatis. “That’s a 25% contribution plus a percentage for every percent that we are above the median teachers salaries in Connecticut.”
Walton noted that the selectmen’s suggested cut of $460,000 is the same amount the town would pay in the first year under the governor’s proposal. The town’s contribution would then increase over the next two years to $947,057 in 2020-21 and $1,435,512 in 2021-22.
Board member Sharon D’Orso pointed out that the town as a whole will be responsible for the teacher pension costs — not just the Board of Education.
While the board signaled they wanted the superintendent to look for places to cut, Stamatis noted that the public can still support the board’s original proposal of a 3.6% budget.
The Ridgefield Council of PTAs said earlier in the meeting that they support the 3.6% budget.
Board Secretary Kathleen Holz pointed out that many residents do not have kids in the school system, but several board members suggested those “empty nesters” may be more supportive of the school system than they’ve been led to believe.
Silver noted that many of the people sitting at the board table no longer have children in the schools.
“Most of my neighbors are empty nesters, and they’re big budget supporters,” said Walton — “It might be because I bully them a little.”
Stamatis said she thinks opposition to school regionalization — three bills have been proposed before the general assembly that could push school districts to combine — could translate “to support for our local schools.”
“It’s the reason people move into Ridgefield … we need to keep that diamond shining,” Stamatis said.
The Board of Finance will hold a public hearing on both budgets Monday, March 25 at East Ridge Middle School.
Immediately following that hearing, which typically runs for about two hours, the school board will hold a meeting to discuss the proposed Board of Finance reductions to its budget— if there are any.
The school board meeting will likely also be held at East Ridge Middle School, Stamatis said.
The school budget will be discussed at the March 28 Board of Finance meeting, where they could possibly vote to make additional cuts before sending the budget on to voters at the annual town meeting on May 6.