A proposed $102 million school budget with a four percent increase, drew one comment during a Saturday morning public hearing.

The quiet Feb. 1 meeting was the Board of Education’s first public hearing on the proposed 2020-21 budget.

“I’m not really sure what to make of it,” school board chairwoman Margaret Stamatis said of the quiet half-hour hearing.

Finance Board Chairman Dave Ulmer agreed.

“It’s pretty astonishing that people wouldn’t even be engaged,” he said.

The second hearing on the budget is planned at 7 p.m. Feb. 10, at the Board of Education meeting room of the Town Hall Annex, off Prospect Street near Yanity gym.

“Any other public comment?” chairwoman Stamatis said after the one speaker offered some thoughts in the public comment portion of the hearing.

“There’s not a lot of us here,” said Ed Tyrell, a spending critic who has been a regular voice at budget hearings for years, but didn’t step up to the microphone Saturday.

Two positions

Debra Franceschini-Gatje of Spireview Road was the one member of the public to speak.

She began by addressing Superintendent JeanAnn Paddyfote’s request to add two new employees — a second social worker at the high school, and a director of security to oversee safety issues throughout the school system. No positions are eliminated in the budget proposal.

“I think it’s very important,” Franceschini-Gatje said of the social worker position, “as well as the safety director.”

The requested 2020-21 school budget envisions a staff of just over 734 positions: 451 teachers; 28 administrators; 33 secretaries; 129 paraprofessional educators; 53 custodians; 24 nurses, therapists and similar positions; 10 on the technology staff; 6 operational managers.

An enrollment study presented by the consulting firm Milone and MacBroom in November predicted the Ridgefield schools’ kindergarten through twelfth grade enrollment would decline 68 students from this year’s 4,627 to 4,559 in 2020-2021.

Of all the ingredients in the budget, employees are the element that make the schools succeed, Paddyfote said in her presentation

“People are the most important,” Paddyfote said.

Salaries are 60 percent of the budget, she said, and benefits are 20 percent.

Paddyfote said that in requesting the social worker Ridgefield High School Principal Stacey Gross had “showed compelling data” that position was needed “for crisis intervention” as well as meeting “day to day” student needs.

Concerning the director of security position, Paddyfote said the school system had one million square feet of building space in 13 locations — the nine school buildings, Tiger Hollow stadium, the central office, the alternative school, and the 18-to-21 program.

The director of safety would take charge of “employee safety and student safety” at all school properties — a needed improvement, Paddyfote said, on the current system of having two administrators share those responsibilities while performing other full time jobs.

Franceschini-Gatje also urged school officials to follow up on talk at the tri-board meeting and cooperate more closely with town departments to save money on capital projects such as building repairs as well as the purchase of supplies and equipment.

“Get more bang for our buck,” she said, and “provide more dollars for the Board of Education to spend on our kids.”

Tyrrell, a critic of spending and tax increases, told The Press after the hearing that he didn’t speak on the $102 million school budget this year because he hadn’t studied it enough to have a meaningful comment.

“I don’t really have any feeling for it yet,” Tyrrell said.

But he was doubtful the more than four percent requested increase would last through a process that includes the school board’s upcoming vote, a non-binding recommendation from the Board of Selectmen, then review and approval by the Board of Finance, leading up to voters’ decision at the town budget referendum in May.

“It’s just a starting point that won’t hold up,” Tyrrell said of four percent increase. “But I haven’t had a chance to have a look at it.”

Second hearing

School board chairwoman Stamatis was hopeful more people would turn out for the second public hearing on Feb. 10.

“We hope people are paying attention now, early in the process,” she said.

There would also be the standard public comment period at the start of the school board’s working meeting on Feb. 24, when final deliberations and voting on the budget are scheduled.

She added that people can also email their thoughts to the Board of Education at boardofed@ridgefieldps.net.

“We’d like people to let the board know if they any comments or thoughts on the budget,” Stamatis said.