Schools consider rainy day fund

With the district staring down a nearly $1-million deficit by year’s end, the Board of Education is mulling over the idea of keeping a contingency fund for the future.  

Doing so would require a revision to the town charter, as well as approval from the Board of Finance. The school board will have to move quickly on the plan, chairwoman Fran Walton said, as the Charter Revision Commission is currently meeting this spring.

The board’s policy committee voted that if the carryover account is created, the funds could be used only for unanticipated special education costs, board member Sharon D’Orso said at the board’s March 12 meeting.

This year, seven new students came to the district with special education plans that required the district to pay for their education at schools outside the district, according to the December school financial report. The district also had to pay for 10 extra special education settlements outside of the money set aside in this year’s budget.

‘Good faith’

While the schools also had to hire three extra teachers after more students enrolled in the elementary schools than the district had predicted, special education costs are the main driver of this year’s impending deficit, according to Walton.

Board member Jonathan Steckler asked if the “rainy day” account could also be used for hiring extra teachers to break class sizes.

“If one year, we had a small number of children cause a large number of breaks, then it could be there as a release valve,” he suggested.

But Carina Borgia-Drake, his colleague on the board, dismissed that idea.

“We want to show that we’re doing good-faith budgeting, rather than that we’re dipping into our ‘little fund,’” she said.

‘There for us’

The board has always returned any leftover money to the town at the school year’s end. But a state law enacted in 2011 allows boards of education to hold back part of that money as a contingency fund — so long as the account doesn’t total more than 1% of that year’s school budget.

Several towns do have the carryover accounts in place. Those include the Avon, South Windsor, Simsbury, North Branford, and Newtown school districts. Wilton also has a carryover account, she added, but the funds are earmarked for capital improvement projects to the schools’ infrastructure.

Walton said she thought the idea was worth pursuing — in light of the fact that the schools had incurred around $850,000 in unexpected costs before the school year even began this past September.

“It’s a huge amount of money — we’ve never recovered from that,” Walton said.

The idea came up briefly at the Board of Selectmen meeting on March 5.

“They’re allowed to have a non-lapsing account, and they could build it up. They could have their own little fund balance,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi.

“Some towns have done that. I don’t really see the advantage of that,” said town Controller   Kevin Redmond.

Walton said she’d discussed the idea with the Board of Finance back in December.

“There were some comments where we were explaining the deficit, and that we’d had these unanticipated costs that had been incurred over the summer, and a couple of members of the board raised the issue, ‘Well, don’t you have a contingency?’” she said.

“No,” she responded at the time.