Ridgefield creates ‘carryover’ fund to ease schools’ COVID-19 costs

The finance board approved a "carryover fund" that may help pay for COVID-related expense of kids going, but things will be different that it was in the old days, as in this 2013 photo.

The finance board approved a "carryover fund" that may help pay for COVID-related expense of kids going, but things will be different that it was in the old days, as in this 2013 photo.

Macklin Reid / Hearst Connecticut Media

RIDGEFIELD — With schools facing coronavirus costs that could reach $2 million, the Board of Finance has agreed to create a special “carryover fund” that would allow a portion of the school system’s year-end surplus for 2019-20 to be spent on COVID-19 related expenses in the upcoming school year.

“We’re limiting the purpose to COVID-related extraordinary expenses,” said finance board member Mike Rettger, who made a motion to create the fund.

The finance board voted 4-1 at its July 21 meeting to authorize the fund. A system to monitor the account will be discussed at the board’s Aug. 18 meeting.

The amount of money in the carryover fund isn’t clear yet, but the motion called for any 2019-20 surplus in excess of $1.1 million to be dedicated to the fund. Accounting for this fiscal year isn’t completed, but the school system’s surplus looks to be about $1.4 million.

Ken Sjoberg, a member of the Board of Education’s Budget, Finance and Operations Committee, told the finance board that as of May 31 the school system had spent almost 98 percent of its $98,194,000 budget for 2019-20, and the year-end surplus was projected to be about $1,399,000.

“My resolution,” Rettger told fellow finance board members, “is enabling an amount of money which seems to be in the $300,000 to $400,000 range to be expended on COVID-related expenses needed to open school.”

Under normal procedures, any money in the school budget that is left unspent at the end of a fiscal year would be returned to the town’s general fund.

Significant costs

Even with the surplus, that might not be enough.

“The costs are significant,” Superintendent of Schools Susie Da Silva told the finance board. “ Close to $2 million in some of our early estimates.”

The costs school officials anticipate to deal with the coronavirus are wide-ranging.

“Portable water fountains to tents,” Da Silva said. “Even just renting a tent — you rent a tent for four weeks, it’s $15,000.”

The state has ordered schools to prepare to operate under three different risk assessment models: One that would have all students in class five days a week; another that would be all remote learning from home; and a third that would be a combination of in-class and remote learning.

The fully in-person assessment model, in which all students would be back in the school buildings and riding buses, would be the most costly for the district, Da Silva said.

“We’re close to $2 million with custodial equipment and technology and PPE,” Da Silva said. “We’re looking right now at 100,000 masks — that’ll last us 27 days, if every student and every faculty member uses one a day.”

“We’ll be competing not only with every other school district in the state and country, but other businesses, and health care, for these same PPE supplies,” said Sjoberg, the school board member.

The school administration’s July 22 report to the Board of Education listed nearly $2.5 million in potential COVID-related expenses for the coming school year.

Among the listed expenses were $345,000 to $690,000 in custodial overtime; $430,500 for live-streaming capabilities; $275,000 for added paraprofessionals in school health offices; $55,000 for paraprofessionals to work lunch and recess; $271,920 for supplies and PPE; $237,000 for Chromebook laptop computers; $168,000 for partitions; $105,000 for bus monitors; $77,995 for digital remote learning platforms; $71,346 for washing stations; $58,610 for substitute teachers; $11,000 to $99,000 for outdoor equipment; $15,000 for training materials; and $13,662 for storage containers.

“The challenge is just to have access right away, to have what we need to get ready for the start of school,” Da Silva told the finance board.

Schools are scheduled to reopen Aug. 27.

Greg Kabasakalian was the lone finance board member to vote against the carryover fund.

“I personally would have liked to see a COVID czar,” he said. “There are so many balls in the air. It’d be great to have one person to point to. The other problem I have with this fund is: It’s another fund.”

Although she ended up voting for it, finance board member Amy Freidenrich also expressed concerns, specifically with monitoring the fund.

“I would want assurance that there’s not going to be any commingling,” she said. “That this is a very clean account, with oversight. I would want to make sure we’re very clear on where it’s coming from, what it’s used for, what the exit strategy is.”

To address her concerns Rettger added to his motion language requiring that money in the account be “authorized, dispersed, and accounted for in accordance with normal Board of Education accounting procedures.”

When the potential $400,000 runs out, Da Silva said school officials would first go through their own budget looking for money to be transferred from planned educational expenses to cover the unplanned COVID costs.

If transfers can’t solve the problem, school authorities could come back to the finance board for more money.

“It very well may be that we ask for an appropriation of sorts,” said Da Silva. “I can’t guarantee I won’t be here with my board chair, asking for that.”

“If the schools need more money for COVID, where’s that money going to come from?” Kabasakalian asked.

Finance board Chairman Dave Ulmer didn’t rule out the possibility of a special appropriation that would require a supplemental tax bill to go out.

“The source of funding would either be a further draw down of general fund,” he said, “or a special appropriation.”