School budget woes: Staff, sports could be chopping block

Staff cuts, no sports — those are the options Ridgefield’s public school system may face if its money problems can’t be solved, Superintendent Dr. Karen Baldwin told the Board of Finance.

The school system has a projected deficit of about $1.2 million for the current year, 2017-18. If it isn’t addressed by an additional appropriation — which would mean action by the finance board, and then a town meeting — what steps could school authorities take to right the fiscal ship?

“The money is in the salary account. You could enact layoffs. That’s hugely disruptive, at this point,” Baldwin told the finance board.

“You could say, effective spring, there’s no sports,” she added.

“Let’s hope we don’t have to go that route,” said finance board member Dick Moccia.

Baldwin had answered the question, asked by finance board member Sean Connelly, near the end of a long discussion of school finances at the board’s Jan. 16 meeting.

The school administration was projecting, based on its Nov. 30 financial report, a deficit of close to $1,264,000 — although with an expectation some of that might be regained through a freeze on discretionary spending imposed by Baldwin in late September.

Baldwin told the finance board that the December financial report, to be presented to the school board Jan. 22, wouldn’t be much different.

Special education, rising costs

The biggest contributor to the projected deficit is special education. The 2017-18 budget anticipated spending $2,030,000 on tuition for “out of district placements” of 19 students with special needs beyond what the Ridgefield Schools could address in-house. But an additional seven students were placed in out-of-district schools, at a cost of just under $525,000.

The school system is also over budget on “settlements” with families involved in quasi-judicial “due process” proceedings to appeal for changes in the education plans for special needs students. Again, this is money that would usually go toward private school placement or other services engaged by the parents — sometimes unilaterally.

“They’re awarded a settlement to gain access to a program,” Baldwin explained.

“They want to go Green Chimneys,” she said, offering a hypothetical case of a family seeking to send a child to the private special education school in Brewster, NY. “It’s $60,000. We say ‘We’re educating your child well.’ We say ‘We won’t pay $60, we’ll pay $25’ — and it goes through attorneys.”

The school system has to pick it’s battles, since legal costs are significant.

“We’re currently in two due process proceedings,” Baldwin said. “The attorneys’ fees are going to be upwards of $150,000.”

As of the Nov. 30 school financial report that Baldwin discussed with the finance board Jan. 16, the schools had budgeted $819,000 for 14 settlements, but settlements concerning an additional 10 students were expected to cost nearly another $499,000.

Other costs that are over budget include $200,000 in unexpected nursing costs. “The district has had to hire through an agency three one-to-one nurses for three medically fragile children,” the financial report says. “In addition there are agency nurses who ride buses to monitor children with life-threatening allergies and other serious medical conditions ...The unplanned cost of these nurses is $200,000.”

Another $216,000 went to additional elementary school classroom teachers. “The board budgeted for 101 K-5 teachers,” the report says. “Based on enrollment and class size breaks there are 104 actual K-5 teachers.” Class size breaks caused additional teachers to be hired at three elementary schools: Barlow Mountain, Veterans Park and Farmingville.

Another factor in the budget deficit is a new electricity contract, which includes a rate increase — from $0.1825 to $0.19397 per kilowatt hour — projected to push the budget into deficit by about $100,000.

Freeze, appropriation

The school board’s principal action to reduce spending is a budget freeze on discretionary spending.

“Our big challenge is trying to capture $1.2 million,” Baldwin told the finance board. “...Based on what remains in discretionary accounts, we can try to get $700,000 of that.”

That would leave a still-to-be-covered deficit of about $500,000 for the board’s $92.6 million 2017-18 budget — a concern to the finance board.

“It’s not even just the discussion of this budget, it’s the next budget cycle,” said finance board member Jessica Mancini. “We can’t keep going and going and going.”

It’s not that there no money. Outside of the current year’s budget, the town has a “general fund balance” — a kind of running, multi-year surplus — that totalled over $15 million at the end of the last fiscal year on June 30, 2017.

“A special appropriation doesn’t mean a tax bill. It means an appropriation form the general fund,” Finance Board Chairman Dave Ulmer during the Jan. 16 discussion.

Any action of this sort would be highly unusual, however — Ulmer, who’s been on the finance board 15 years, told The Press the last request for a mid-year additional school appropriation he can recall was in 2001 or 2002, before he joined the finance board. 

Any additional appropriation would only be considered with opportunity for public input, Ulmer told the Jan. 16 meeting.

“We would go through both a public hearing and a town meeting — they might be on the same day,” he said.

“Clarification,” said Board of Education Chairwoman Fran Walton. “We aren’t asking for any money yet.”