School cuts exceed $1 million

Facing over $1 million in cuts needed to bring balance to their budget, school board members nibbled and nicked at accounts ranging from energy to special education, but balked at cutting money for textbooks and asked for a plan to show how cuts to the hours of security guards at the elementary schools could be safely accommodated.

Still, they got their 2017-18 budget down to $92,633,544 — reducing the 3.48% increase they’d sought to the 2.5% approved by the finance board. That budget, if approved by voters at referendum May 9, would be a $2,259,315 increase over current year spending.

And the board made clear that it opposes raising class sizes to save money.

“Keep cost reduction away from the students,” school board Chairwoman Fran Walton said Monday, April 24.

The school board learned that evening that the total savings it needed to find in its $93.5-million 2017-18 budget would be $1,004,000, up $120,000 from the $884,000 that its request had been cut by the Board of Finance — and discussed at its first budget reduction meeting, last Wednesday, April 19.

That’s because the budget request as presented by Superintendent Karen Baldwin, and approved by the school board, had deducted from its projected expenses $120,000 in income from tuition paid by students at its preschool and by staff who live out of town but send their children to Ridgefield schools and the selectmen had counted that same $120,000 in revenue projections in their town budget.

So the $120,000 was double-counted, and the board received word that the finance board believed the money was properly counted as revenue and shouldn’t be used as a deduction or offset in the school budget.

That pushed the total the school board needed to find in budget cuts from $884,000 last week to $1,004,000 Monday.

Baldwin presented the board with an additional cut list totaling $320,000 Monday.

That was done because the largest single item Baldwin had put before the board Wednesday was $200,000 in possible health insurance savings that could be achieved only if the unions agreed to certain changes proposed by the board’s benefits consultant, Rob Fitzpatrick, based on his discussion with insurance provider Anthem.

With those discussions ongoing, the board looked Monday at a cut list large enough to handle the $104,000 budget gap — without the $200,000 in health plan savings, which meant the total in cuts presented Monday was $1,204,000.

When asked if she thought talks with the unions would end up making the hoped-for $200,000 in health insurance savings real, Baldwin said the district would “learn more as we continue meeting.”

At the April 19 meeting, Baldwin was careful in characterizing the potential savings.

“The plan itself does not change,” Baldwin said.

“We’re not entering into bargaining with the unions. We’re entering into conversations around how to incentivize participation.”

If more employees cooperate and “fit into Anthem’s framework,” that could reduce costs, she said.

Not textbooks

The proposed cut that gave board members the most angst — and ended up being removed from the list — was a $105,000 reduction in new textbook purchases.

“Textbooks, that’s a direct impact on curriculum,” Sharon D'Orso said. “That is something that absolutely should not be removed from the budget.”

David Cordisco agreed, and proposed the motion removing textbooks from the cut list.

“Take out the $105,000, and instruct Dr. Baldwin to go back and find some more savings,” he said.

The board was also uneasy with a $22,942 reduction to the $360,903 contract with Securitas, the company that provides security guards at the schools.

Baldwin explained that the reduction would be achieved in two areas. The guards at elementary school are contracted to work from an hour before school starts until an hour after school ends, and the proposal was to reduce guard services to a half-hour before and after school at each of the elementary buildings.

In addition, guards would be dropped for four selected evening events — concerts, school plays and the like — that are mostly attended by parents.

“We don’t sign parents in. We don’t make parents wear those little badges,” Baldwin said.

The principals felt they could handle security at those events without the guards, she said.

The bulk of the nearly $23,000 savings, she said, was in shortening the guards’ daily schedule by the half-hour before and after school.

Initial cuts

The initial $884,000 in cuts Baldwin offered came in a variety of categories.

Personnel savings total $171,900, and include:

  •  $71,900 by cutting an elementary school teaching position, which reduced the number of “full-time equivalents,” or FTEs, for teaching jobs in the six elementary schools from 102 to 101  — the move creates “risk” by eliminating the one extra position budgeted to create new sections if class size guidelines are exceeded.
  • $50,000 saved by cutting a secretary’s position in the special education department’s central office staff — a position currently vacant.
  • $70,000 in savings to health benefits costs, expected as a result of two staff reductions.
  • $50,000 would come from the account for substitutes that are used, not when teachers are out unexpectedly, but to fill in when teachers are attending professional development programs.

Cuts in the roughly $14-million Special Education Department budget amounted to $96,714.

Those cuts included:

  • A $29,310 reduction to the allocation for the Connecticut Center for Special Needs (CCSN), which provides behavior analysts to work with children with significant disabilities.
  • A $32,404 cut to the $360,000 extended school year program — summer classes for special ed students who would backslide dramatically with a long period off.
  • A $15,000 reduction in the budget for testing materials, from $40,000 to $25,000.
  • Stretching out the $40,000 purchase of 13 “FM systems” for students with hearing problems over two years — reducing next year’s request to $20,000.

Facilities projects would be cut a total of $20,190. That includes:

  • $11,590 for replacement of wall pads in the East Ridge gym.
  • $8,600 for a new sound system in the Scotts Ridge auditorium.

The $1.9-million energy budget would be reduced by $15,000, representing lower energy expenditures at Ridgefield High School as a result of conversion to propane.

A savings of $66,000 would be found by paying for “teachers college lab sites” — training in literacy teaching — with Title I federal grant money.

The technology department would be reduced $96,461, including:

  • $30,188 saved on hardware lease.
  • $9,673 in software by dropping plans to upgrade the music technology lab.
  • $16,600 in technology instructional materials.
  • $40,000 by dropping a maintenance contract on the school system’s phones, which the district hopes will be replaced because they’re so frequently out of service — but that requires approval of a $550,000 capital budget expenditure. If the phones aren’t replaced, the maintenance contract will have to be maintained and other savings found.
  • $35,735 cut from the various schools’ accounts for purchase of “instructional materials.”

A $105,000 reduction in textbook purchases was proposed by Baldwin but dropped by the board.

All the cuts specified Wednesday amounted to $664,000, and if the $200,000 in health benefit savings materialize, together they would cover the $884,000 the finance board eliminated.

Second cut list

The additional $320,000 in cuts Baldwin recommended Monday would cover the $120,000 in tuition income that was mistakenly double counted, and also the $200,000 in hoped-for health insurance savings in the event the talks with the unions don’t produce an agreement.

Those second-round cuts included:

  •  $15,475 in proposed “additional days” of work during the summer by the leaders of the high school’s special education and guidance departments.
  • $22,000 gained by an agreement with the administrators union members that gives its members an additional day off without pay.
  • $44,000 by eliminating two paraeducators in the special education department. Overall the school system totals just under 117 full-time paraeducators, and the budget had proposed increasing this 1.2 positions to just over 118 — but it now would fall to just under 116.
  • $20,000 by increasing the “turnover assumption” from $430,000 to $450,000. The turnover assumption is money the schools expect to save as some of their 718 employees retire and are replaced with lower-paid new hires.
  • $56,000 by bringing a special education student currently “outplaced” at an out-of-district school back into a Ridgefield classroom next year.
  • $22,942 in savings from the contract with Securitas for security guards, reducing the before- and after-school and evening special event coverage.
  • $24,583 in energy savings from the “capital energy project” at the high school that will be on the referendum ballot — the money would have to be found elsewhere if the project is voted down.
  • $20,000 in transportation by eliminating two vans taking special education students to “extended school year” summer programs, which was part of the first cut list.
  • $20,000 in reduced diesel fuel costs for buses, based on looking closely at fuel use this year.
  • $23,000 in benefits costs saved due to the reductions in the paraeducator work force.
  • $7,000 saved by doing more to collect unpaid cafeteria bills.
  • $10,000 from the general legal services account, which had been budgeted to rise from $55,000 this year to $60,000 next year, but will now decrease to $50,000.
  • $20,000 for consultants and conferences and training from a $35,000 districtwide professional services account.
  • $15,000 from the $75,000 curriculum development budget.

The cut lists — minus the $150,000 for textbooks — were approved 6-0 Monday.

Class sizes

Baldwin had suggested Wednesday night that if further cuts were needed, they could be found is by increasing class sizes.

If $200,000 sought through the talks with the unions didn’t come through, she said, personnel reductions could be accomplished by adjustments to class size maximums, resulting in fewer classroom teachers.

“Raising the grade three class size guidelines and taking two positions there,” Baldwin said. “Raising the grade one class size guidelines and taking a position there.”

It didn’t fly with board members.

“It took us years of work to get to these class sizes,” lamented Walton.

“You’re talking about raising 25 to 26 at grade three, and grade one, 21 to 22,” said Sharon D’Orso. “To see class sizes at the high school where’s 10 and 12, and taking first grade and bringing it up to 22…”

Baldwin said the administration had reviewed the class sizes at the high school — where students’ various class choices and the demands of scheduling make some smaller classes hard to avoid.

“The high school has done a really good job of tightening the structure of how many kids are in a course section,” she said.

“We looked at 15 being the cut-off for class size,” she said.

“Things like German, folks, are below 15 … I heard loud and clear we have to have a commitment to get those kids through that.”

After Wednesday’s discussion board members had their resistance to the idea strengthened by a barrage of emails.

“It’s very clear that’s something we value here at the board table and in the community,” D’Orso said.

“I think we heard loud and clear from the people this is something they value,” Walton agreed.