Ridgefield schools’ budget work will get harder, Da Silva says

RIdgefield School Superintendent Susie Da Silva.

RIdgefield School Superintendent Susie Da Silva.

Contributed photo / Hearst Connecticut Media

“We’d hoped it would come in higher,” Superintendent of School Susie Da Silva said the day after Ridgefield’s Board of Finance had approved a $99,912,000 school budget for 2020-21 — a 1.75 percent increase in school spending from this year to next.

The 1.75 percent spending hike is about $250,000 more than the 1.5 percent school spending increase the Board of Selectmen had called for in their “non-binding recommendation” to the finance board. And it’s about $2,170,000 less than than the 3.96 percent increase the Board of Education had requested.

“Every one percent is about $1 million — that’s just a way to look at how significant the cuts could be,” Da Silva told The Press in a telephone interview Friday, May 22.

A more than $2 million reduction was larger than she was hoping it would be, as a new superintendent who’d just started in Ridgefield — and as a school superintendent — on April 1.

But with the coronavirus rampaging, the economy locked down, and unemployment at levels that haven’t been seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, a budget cut was not a surprise.

“We realized with everything that’s happening in our community and certainly in the larger broader community, we were going to have a cut from our originally adopted 3.96,” she said. “We had hoped it would be higher than 1.75, but all along the way we’ve been preparing for different scenarios in the event the decision made is not in our favor.”

Difficult for all

Da Silva seemed to understand where the town’s fiscal authorities were coming from.

“Throughout the process I actually did appreciate — these are difficult decisions for everyone, whether it’s Board of Finance or Board of Selectmen,” she said.

“And they have to advocate for what they believe is the right thing to do for the community, and I have to advocate for what I believe is in the interests of the school system — which is different from their job,” Da Silva said.

She was looking ahead to a meeting Tuesday night, May 26, at which the Board of Education would begin the process of deciding where to find over $2 million in cuts. Da Silva thought the process would take couple of board meetings over a couple weeks.

A list of recommended potential cuts from the administration is designed to provide a basis for the discussion — but the decision-making is up to the elected board.

“A list of recommended reductions that even actually go below the 1.75,” she said, “and the reason we create it that way is to allow for the decision to happen at the board level.”

What gets cut and what stays in the budget are value-laden decisions. And with the administration’s list offers a starting point that grounds the discussions in the realities of the school system’s operations, and the debate and ultimate decisions should reflect board members’ priorities.

“And, hopefully, two weeks from now we’ll have a budget we can finalize,” Da Silva said.

Da Silva has been leading RIdgefield’s schools for only eight weeks — a time made crazier and a job-start made infinitely more complex by the coronavirus pandemic that closed Ridgeifeld’s nine school buildings and sent staff and students down previously little used pathways of distance learning.

And, she arrived when the town’s annual budget process was already well along the way.

“This was obviously a very busy couple of weeks,” she said.

“My take-away from the process is that, you know, over the course of a year I think the dialogue needs to happen very early on, so that when we’re in this position everybody’s on the same page of what the impact might really be — whether it’s town or Board of Education. For me it’s hard, because I came in on April 1st,” she said.

Public support

Da Silva was impressed with the strong show of public support for the schools through the budget process, with people speaking up at the selectmen’s meetings and the finance board’s public hearing — all conducted virtually, on Zoom — as well as petitions, and emails to decision-makers.

“What’s interesting about that — obviously there was strong turnout — it’s clear that people in Ridgefield value their schools, for lots of different reasons and those reasons aren’t always the same. But ultimately they support the schools and that’s a great feeling when you’re a superintendent. It’s clear to me that people care very deeply about the Ridgefield Public Schools,” Da Silva said.

“So as I walk into the next budget season, just looking for the silver lining in the whole process, I was able to hear what a lot of what parents value, and as a result I can walk into the next budget season knowing a little bit more than I would have known had this budget closed out before I got here.”

Da Silva also shared some of her reaction to the budget process in a “dear families and faculty” email sent out Friday, May 22.

“As I reflect on the past few weeks, I have been thinking about the complexity of the Budget process,” she wrote. “In every district, it begins late fall and ends late spring. It is long, yet invaluable in that it represents the values and priorities of a community as well the Mission and Vision of the Ridgefield Public Schools. The current world circumstances and nature of our lives have added an extra layer to its complexity.

“Regardless of the Budget outcome, discourse is critical in ensuring transparency, as well an understanding of perspective. The next level of work will require an added level of clarity and dialogue, as most of our recommendations and/or decisions have not and will not be easy. What you do need to know is that our administrative team has worked hard and prioritized the needs of children first.”

Da Silva told The Press that the support she’s seen Ridgefielders show for their schools allows her to come away from the budget process some positives — despite the Board of Education’s request for a 3.96 percent increase being reduced to a 1.75 percent increase.

“I would have liked to have seen that number be higher,” Da Silva said. “At the end of the day, hearing people speak about our schools, what they continue to value — did not fall deaf ears. I heard them.”