Ridgefield school board declines to reduce its budget request
Talk of soaring unemployment and a need for collaboration and flexibility in difficult times did not translate into a Board of Education majority willing to rescind it’s request for a 3.96 percent budget increase next year.
“This is not time for deep diving cuts on already lean budgets,” said board member Rachel Ruggeri.
“We have people in our community that cannot pay for their groceries,” said school board member Liz Floegel, who made a motion to rescind the board’s previous vote on the 2020-21 budget. “Our state is already on the brink of bankruptcy.”
Floegel’s motion to rescind the board’s request for a $102 million budget next year was voted down 7-to-2 Monday night, April 27. The vote came during a Board of Eucation meeting open to the public on Zoom. The meeting also heard communications on the budget from some 25 residents read into the record, with all but one of them asking that cuts to be held to a minimum.
Floegel said the state of Connecticut could potentially experience 400,000 unemployment claims.
“We are at the brink of economic devastation,” she said.
Floegel thought there were areas where the schools could reduce spending that had been planned before the coronavirus brought both local and national economies to a near standstill.
“Buying textbooks,” she said. “Maybe we can use what we used last year.”
Selectmen, finance board
Other board members questioned the idea of rescinding their budget request in advance of action by the selectmen and Board of Finance.
Executive orders from Governor Ned Lamont give the selectmen and finance board budget-making authority normally wielded by voters at the Annual Town Meeting and the the budget referendum. Based on discussion at last week’s tri-board meeting, school officials seemed to regard a reduction in the 2020-21 school budget as very likely to be handed down by the selectmen and finance board.
But they were reluctant to preemptively reduce their $102 million budget request.
Board member Nora Gaydos spoke “on behalf of the 5,000 children who can’t speak for themselves.” She was wary of reducing the budget request.
“Those of us who are or were educators definitely understand the impact on the kids,” she said.
“There will be cuts at all levels. I know as a teacher, just when a student is out for a week, what the impact is,” Gaydos said.
“We have to be ready and willing to provide the support to the children, but also the teachers and staff.”
New School Superintendent Susie Da Silva noted that the budget request for a 3.96% increase that she had inherited from Interim Superintendent JeanAnn Paddyfote had called for expanded services and personnel in three areas: the addition off three math coaches, another social worker at the high school, and a director of security position to oversee all aspects of school security.
Without those three additions, just carrying forward the current operations with contracted salary and other non-discretionary cost increases, would mean a budget with about a 2.96 percent increase — one percent less — she said.
“We want to partner with the town. The path of least resistance would be to maintain a budget at 2.96,” she said. “All of our budgets flat-funded.
“That’s the path of least resistance, not necessarily the best path,” she added.
“After that we’re looking at everything,” Da Silva said.
“As a reminder, 80% of our budget is people,” she said.
Contracted pay raises are a big part of the school board’s annual budget increase, and Da Silva said the administration had begun talking to union groups about potential adjustments to contracts — but hadn’t gotten very far with the system’s largest and most expensive union group, teachers.
“The teachers union, they’re not open for that conversation, at least at this point,” Da Silva said. “That conversation is over. At this point, they’re not open to that discussion.”
She added, “I look to the board to give us ideas of things we haven’t considered.”
The administration will be constructing “scenarios” for how various levels of budget reductions could be absorbed, and how their implications would play out.
“We are truly going line by line. We’ve looked at every option we can, and we’re starting to create those scenarios,” Da Silva said. “But none of them look great.”
Board member Sean McEvoy — who eventually seconded Floegel’s motion to rescind the previous budget vote — argued that the board should be more aggressive about reworking the budget during the coronavirus crisis.
“I’m a little disappointed in board leadership,” he said. “We’ve had two meetings since this started, and they’ve been trivial, we haven’t discussed the hard things...
“We need to look at the big bets. We need to look at the things we’ve been putting off for a decade,” McEvoy said.
He mentioned things like possibly combining information technology operations with the town’s IT department.
But McEvoy also appeared to be alluding to long-standing discussions that, in recnet years, have touched on the controversial idea of closing one of the town’s six elementary schools.
At the end of the board’s discussion of the 2020-21 budget, McEvoy made a point about his colleagues referring to the school system’s enrollment as 5,000 students, despite a continuing decline.
“We haven’t been 5,000 students for many many years,” McEvoy said. “We’re almost an elementary school less than that. We’re approximately 4,500, for everybody watching at home.”
He gave colleagues something of a pep talk about considering more drastic changes to the school system.
“If you want to win this budget battle you’ve got to do it as a team,” he said.
“School is shut down till September. We’ve got a long runway to bring back a new district, and tell the town it’s going to be better,’ McEvoy said.
“We need to do bigger bets, we need to be bolder.”
McEvoy’s initial questioning of “board leadership” — which appeared to be addressed to chairwoman Margaret Stamatis — drew a rebuke.
“I don’t think it’s a very productive time to start attacking members of our own board,” said Carina Drake.
Other board members simply doubtful about the wisdom of preemptively cutting a 2020-21 budget request that will have to finance a difficult return to school — either later this spring, or in the fall.
“Our kids are going to be hurting too,” said Rachel Ruggeri.
“We’re not a corporation,” she said. “This is the time to lean into education to find the money to pay for our children.”
“Our primary responsibility here is the students in our care,” said Jonathan Steckler.
“We have to be flexible. We’re going to have to work together with the administration and faculty,” said board member Kathleen Holz. “ ...I don’t know if we can go line by line at this point. We need to do what we think is best, but we need to be flexible.
She added, “I’ve been in this field since1975. I’ve never seen something like this.”
“Obviously we want to take care of the children — they’re why we’re here,” said board member Ken Sjoberg. “...if we’re forced to have a 0% increase, we can wish we have all the science and math support we want, but we’re not going to have that...
“If we have to make those deep cuts, then those deep cuts have to be made,” he said. “It’s not an unlimited pot of money.”
Floegel urged her colleagues to action.
“This is not business as usual,” she said.
“While we may not have 40 percent unemployment, it’s over 20 percent,” she said. “...We are fiscally accountable for the school system. We are living in unprecedented times!”
When her motion came to a vote, only Floegel and her seconder, McEvoy, voted to rescind the board’s previous vote seeking a $102 million budget with a 3.96 percent spending increase.
Board members Ruggeri, Gaydos. Sjoberg, Drake, Steckler, Holz and chairwoman Stamatis opposed the motion.
“There’s a lot of things we do need to look at,” Steckler said.
“We currently have a 3.96% increase approved. We do expect that to be changed by the Board of Finance,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s time for us to jump ahead of them, and assume a 40% unemployment rate and bankrupt state. That’s not our job.”
Sojberg summed up the situation going forward.
“We need to make all the decisions that we do make based on what’s the best we can do with the amount of money we’re allowed to have,” he said. “The tough choices need to be made.”