Ridgefield schools ask to limit cuts, as selectmen eye zero increase

New Ridgefield Superintendent of Schools Susie Da Silva is due to start April 2, 2020.

New Ridgefield Superintendent of Schools Susie Da Silva is due to start April 2, 2020.

contributed photo / Hearst Connectictu Media

How hard is it raining? Hard enough to tap the town’s rainy day fund?

With the selectmen in agreement that the town’s taxes should be held to a zero percent increase in the coming year, and the town’s new school superintendent, Susie Da Silva starting on the job April 2, school board chairman Margaret Stamatis has made public a request that reductions to the school budget be limited.

“It is an extraordinary time to join a new community and to be a superintendent,” new Superintendent Da Silva said in letter to the community.

“Over the next few weeks, I will look to find creative ways to connect and collaborate with the Board of Education, staff, students, families and the community.,” she said.

“The road ahead requires the on-going assessment of our practices, modifying and adjusting where needed and navigating the budget implications of now and the challenges of the future. We will plan and prepare for students’ return, and as typical of school districts during the spring season, begin making preparations for the summer months.”

As days turn into weeks, and the possibility of weeks into months, creating parallels to the classroom experience will be essential. We will look to foster the learning and joy that students have come to expect from the Ridgefield Public Schools.”

School board chair Stamatis issued a statement asking that the selectmen and finance board not “flat fund” Board of Education — meaning no increase — for 2020-21. She sent to the Board of Selectmen her statement, saying the schools will need some increase just to help accommodate contract obligations that will rise.

Stamatis had intended to read her statement at last night’s virtual Board of Selectmen’s meeting, but the “zoom” aspect of the meeting was shut down due to “bombing” by pranksters, so she emailed it to First Selectman Rudy Marconi.

The selectman did not make any cuts Wednesday night — although they seem to expect both town and school budgets will have to be reduced from prior requests. In the case of the school budget, they will make a recommendation to the Board of Finance, which has fiscal control of education spending’s dollar total, though not how the money is spent.

The selectmen seemed to favor a scenario put forward by First Selectman Marconi in which the schools would be held to a 1.5 percent increase, the town would be held to a 1.2 percent increase, and taxes would be kept to 0 percent increase by the use of money from the town’s approximately $14 million surplus fund balance — the “rainy day fund” built up over prior years. The talk was that about $1.7 million from the fund balance would be needed to balance that kind of a budget with no tax increase. Although that figure might increase due to the collapse of other non-tax revenues such as fees for various activities and permits. Use of money from the fund balance is the prerogative of the Board of Finance. An alternative scenario offered for discussion involved cutting both town and schools to 0 increases in spending for next year.

The selectmen were clearly worried.

“It is set by the Board of Finance, but it’s a policy issue about how much you maintain as a fund balance,” Selectwoman Barbara Manners said. “I think the fund balance, it’s a rainy day fund, and as the governor has said: It’s raining.”

“I’m afraid it’s just drizzling now,” said Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark, “and in a little while we’ll have a deluge.”

The selectman took no votes on the fiscal matters, and asked Marconi to set up a virtual tri-board meeting with the boards of selectmen, finance and education.

The statement from Board of Education chairwoman Margaret Stamatis follows:

“In anticipation of the BOS recommending a 0% tax increase for next year, the BOE urges the BOS and BOF not to flat fund the BOE operating budget for next year.

“A flat budget will mean significant cuts to staff and school programs. It means finding $4 million to cut from the BOE 2020-21 Operating budget request. Even if we remove the portion representing new requests, we need to find the difference by taking away from what we currently provide. With 80% of the budget comprised of salary and benefits, and then a significant percentage of the remainder committed to contractual obligations such as transportation and energy, and to legally required special education services, there are few areas to chisel away at. We must also consider that there will likely be implications of the current situation that will result in expenses next year that were not anticipated when the BOE budget was developed and adopted.

“As always we try to keep cuts as far from the classroom as possible, but the reality is that we are already lean and everything impacts the classroom.

“In your deliberations about budget recommendations, please do not forget our town’s youngest community members, the almost 4800 students (about 20% of the town’s residents) who are relying on us to continue to serve them well. The upheaval they have experienced during this global crisis will have an emotional toll. When they return to physical school, I think we would all want them to return to as normal a school experience as possible, with a focus on supporting their academic needs and emotional health.

“ The proposed budget supports initiatives in the social/emotional domain. This will be needed more than ever after this closure.

“ The impact of this closure on students with disabilities will likely be such that they will need more than their non-disabled peers to re-acclimate once school reopens and recoup potential regression

“ Budget cuts will result in higher class sizes, loss of programs and resources further exacerbating the effects of the school closure

“We are asking the BOS to:

“1. Delay any vote on the recommendations regarding the BOE budget increase. As we’ve seen over the past few weeks, things change very quickly in response to the crisis. The Governor’s Executive Order 7C does not require the BOS or BOF to act in haste to move budgets forward -in fact, it provides for an extension of municipal deadlines. Please consider taking more time to hear from the community, and to see what other changes may come in the next few days, before taking action.

“2. To ask the BOF to consider using some of the general fund balance to allow for a modest increase in the BOE budget even if the tax increase is kept to 0%.”