School cut list includes art teachers and tech spending

Art teachers, technology purchases, and a special bus run to ease kindergartners into a full day of school were among $230,000 in budget reductions recommended by Superintendent of Schools Dr. William Collins on Monday, April 8.
The Board of Education needs $230,000 in cuts to meet the finance board’s reduction to the $98 million budget school request for 2019-20. Board members heard Collins’ recommendations, and discussed them, added some ideas of their own, and set decision making for their meeting Monday, April 22.
“This was a collective effort,” Dr. Collins said of the cut list. “This was about a search to keep this away from the classroom.”
The discussion followed public comments in which representatives of both the PTAs and the teachers union urged the board to keep budget cuts “as far away from the classroom as possible.”
Board member Frances Walton felt that amounted to an impossible task.
“Everything affects the classroom,” she said. “When we get cut, it’s going to affect the classroom one way or the other.”
Some board members worried they’d have to find another $100,000 in cuts to cover Collins’ decision to maintain consultants from the Center for Children with Special Needs next year while also adding in-house special education staff that will eventually replace them. But Collins told the board this could be done by transfers of special education funds, without cutting elsewhere.
“We believe we can achieve that $100,000 within the special education budget,” Collins said.
The $230,000 cut list would cover the finance board’s reduction of the proposed 2019-20 school budget from $98,423,760, a 3.60 percent increase, to $98,193,760, a 3.36 percent increase.
Collins’ recommended cuts were:

  • $109,000 could be found by reducing elementary school art teachers, as had previously been proposed by the administration but was later reversed by the board after objections from the community.

  • $50,000 could be saved through a “buy-ahead” program to that would make purchases in next year’s budget with money remaining in this year’s allocation before the fiscal year ends June 30.

  • $36,000 could be reduced from next year’s technology budget, either with a similar approach of using money from this year, or through “deferrals” — putting the purchases off.

  • $13,510 could be saved by pushing back the hiring date for the STEM supervisor envisioned as next year’s leader of curriculum and instructional improvement in learning related to science, technology, engineering and math. The position, with a salary of $162,120 a year, would still be added, but a month later — starting Aug. 1 rather than July 1 — drawing pay for only 11 months in the 2019-20 fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020.

  • $16,000 would be saved through reductions to the “per school” discretionary spending allocations — again, with a potential for some of the needed supplies and equipment to be purchased with money from this year’s budget.

  • $5,490 could be found by eliminating a midday bus run that takes kindergartners home after half a day for the first two weeks of school. Having half-days for the first two weeks is a program that dates back to the district’s transition from half-day to full-day kindergarten, and is no longer viewed as necessary, Dr. Collins said. Parents who want their kindergartners in school only a half day to start the year could pick their children up, he said.

Aware that the proposed reduction to art teachers could be controversial, Collins offered an alternative.
“To substitute for that, the only area we had is to take $109,000 from technology,” he said.
Art teachers
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Craig Creller sought to assure board members that the reduction in the art teaching staff’s FTEs — “full time equivalents,” the number of positions, or hours — wouldn’t diminish students’ experiences.
“We can provide more with less,” he said. “... The reduction will be to FTEs not to the amount of art the students get.”
“It isn’t the same for each building,” board member Carina Borgia-Drake said of art classes.
“Some schools have 14 sections,” board member Sharon D’Orso said, “some have 18 sections.”
“Part of the issue is a five- or six-day rotating schedule,” Collins replied. “We’ll have a common schedule in the fall for all the elementary schools.”
“I’m hearing a hesitancy about reducing the art positions,” said Chairwoman Margaret Stamatis toward the end of the discussion.
But not all board members were against considering the art teacher cuts.
“If we have positions in our elementary schools, that aren’t completely being utilized, we have to look at that,” said Walton.
Buy now
Collins was enthusiastic about the “buy now” approach.
“We heard from the Board of Finance they want us to use our budget, which was good news,” he said. “If we can look at things we’ve identified in next year’s budget, we can buy now ...
“They would be things — couldn’t be salaries — school supplies,” he said. “ … Buy the supplies now.”
“Do we have the money now?” asked board member James Keidel.
There’s usually an end-of-year surplus which is returned to the town general fund. Collins’ approach would be to use that money, spending it as the June 30 end of the fiscal year draws closer. By then the amount of surpluses and deficits in various accounts becomes evident, the numbers are balanced, and what’s left over is known.
“Last year, we gave back $150,000, which is cutting it close,” Collins said.
Board ideas
Some board members offered their own ideas for cuts.
“Class section sizes at the high school,” suggested board member Doug Silver “... Making more staffing adjustments at the high school ... the sports program, whether there are efficiencies there ...”
“It’s a large budget,” he added.
Carina Borgia-Drake suggested reducing the funding for outside consultants that currently conduct professional development— teacher training — workshops, and having that work done by the humanities and STEM supervisors on the central administrative staff.
(The humanities supervisor is currently on staff, but is filling in as a building principal at Scotland Elementary School — a situation expected to be remedied by next year. The STEM supervisor isn’t on staff yet, but is expected to be by next year.)
“The in-house humanities and STEM supervisors would take on some of the professional development,” Borgia-Drake said.
“That’s a possibility,” Collins said.
He did see one potential drawback.
“An area that we are short in is curriculum writing,” he said. “... Those two people will obviously be part of that work.”
Later in the discussion, Borgia-Drake returned to the idea of “eliminating consultants” from Teachers College at Columbia University and having staff administrators lead the professional development.
“Our in-house people have large six-figure salaries,” she said, and the board’s understanding was they “are going to take care of professional development.”
She was clearly dissatisfied with the work of the Columbia consultants.
“We have high school students reading at the six grade level,” she said.
Walton said the board understood there were problems in sixth grade, eighth grade, but she was skeptical of Borgia-Drake’s proposal.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard the STEM supervisor or humanities supervisor would fully take over the role of in-house professional development,” Walton said.
“The decisions of this board should be about science, and best practices,” Borgia-Drake said. “...New York City has dropped Teachers College ...
“It’s 100 years of research and the reading wars have been decided,” she said. “...We’re investing in something that isn’t best practices.”
“We did have a discussion last year, about Teachers College and slowly weaning from it,” board member Sharon D’Orso said.
No problem
Collins assured the board that delaying the new STEM supervisor’s star date by a month wouldn’t cause problems.
“I don’t think we’d be able to get the person on board anyway,” he said.
The position couldn’t be advertised unit the budget is approved in mid-May, and then people would apply, be interviewed.
“We want to be sure we have the right person, It’ll be a somewhat lengthy process,” Collins said.
Turnover, health?
Walton asked Collins if he’d looked at “staff turnover” — an estimated reduction put in the budget each year in the expectation of staff retirements that allows highly paid veteran teachers to be replaced with new teachers lower on the salary scale, saving money.
“I’ve never seen staff turnover handled this way,” confessed Collins, who started as superintendent in Ridgefield earlier this year after decades serving other districts.
“It’s an arbitrary number, $450,000, that right now does not exist,” he said. “We don’t even have the $450,000 right now. We’re going to be sweating a half a million dollars all summer.”
Walton had another idea.
“We haven’t talked about health insurance,” she said.
Walton felt the board’s large planned expenditure — health insurance is the biggest account under employee benefits, budgeted at some $19 million — could be a source of savings. Often the insurance companies start with a high projected increase, expecting to get negotiated down.
“It’s such a big number. It can have such an impact,” Walton said.
Some of the other cuts being discussed upset people.
“The whole community get riled and anxious,” she said.
Chairwoman Stamatis wasn’t sure insurance saving would be something the board could bank on.
“Our experience is it tends to come down,” she said. “...But there is a risk.”
“That could be a huge swing — either way,” said Keidel.
School Business Manager Dawn Norton said the budget work had started with projected health insurance increases projected as high as 18 percent, but had reduced it — in part by separating the school insurance program from that of the town departments, which had a rough year health-wise.
“We brought the number down to seven percent,” Norton said. “...We’re pretty confident it’s not going to go down much more than it already has.”
The administration will put together more information on the superintendent’s cut list and the board’s suggestions — with an idea of getting the cuts approved at the April 22 meeting.
“I think it’s wise for us to have multiple options,” Silver said. “If the insurance goes up, we’re going to need more than what’s here.”