Schools eye 3.1% budget increase
With town officials eying a state cap of 2.5% in overall increases in municipal spending, the Board of Education said Monday night that it would seek to cut its proposed budget increase from 4.83% to 3.1%, giving the district a $95,505,182 budget for the 2018-19 school year.
In response to criticism from students and parents, the board also asked Superintendent Karen Baldwin not to cut two full-time English positions at Ridgefield High School and not to reduce art staffing at the district’s six elementary schools, as her original bud. get proposed.
“Every single decision we make will impact the students,” said board member Sharon D’Orso.
In total, 20 members of the community spoke at the Feb. 12 meeting — seven students and 13 parents, two of whom are Ridgefield teachers.
D’Orso summarized their message to the board: Cuts should be made in areas that don’t “touch students every single day,” she said.
The superintendent’s office estimated that a 2018-19 budget that meets only contract obligations the district has already agreed to — increases in salaries, health insurance, and the new transportation and electricity contracts — would require an increase of 3.34%, or an additional $3,093,502, over this year’s budget.
What to leave out?
Vice Chairman Doug Silver said he was concerned that hacking away at the budget request would be interpreted as trimming away fat.
“The implication is that the things you’re going to find are excess … the things that you can do without and still provide an excellent education system,” he said.
Wilton, he pointed out, had had a 1% budget increase last year. This year, Wilton’s superintendent proposed a 1.98% increase.
“To put that in perspective, they’ve eliminated 20 teacher positions in the last three years,” Silver said. “Athletic budget again, this year, is being cut. They’re going to be cutting some parts of their sports schedule.”
“We are not alone in this,” Silver added, referring to the financial climate.
The board has scheduled a special meeting for Tuesday, Feb. 20, to discuss cuts that would be necessary to bring the budget to 3.1% — ones that would not involve teachers.
“Deep reductions across all program areas will need to be considered to accomplish the 3.1% or the 2.5% operating budget,” Baldwin told The Press.
In a joint statement Tuesday night, the board’s executive committee said it would look “to reduce in areas that would have as little impact on the classroom as possible.”
The district may also be able to capture savings elsewhere.
“Some potential savings may be found in health care, and we have asked our insurance broker to continue to work with us in an attempt to reduce the renewal rate,” the statement said. “There may be savings in our transportation costs, and that is being reviewed.”
English and art
Despite the budget woes, the message from parents and students was clear Monday night — don’t touch the English program at RHS, and don’t cut art teachers’ hours at the elementary schools.
“As you examine Baldwin’s budget tonight, I would implore you to keep budget cuts as far from the classroom as possible,” said Liz Karlan of Mallory Hill Road, who teaches social studies at RHS.
The phrase “as far from the classroom as possible” was used by multiple parents, staff, and students at the Feb. 12 Board of Education meeting.
Keeping the RHS English department and elementary art staff intact in 2018-19 will add another $272,080 to the proposed budget, Baldwin said. That means the original budget proposal will have to be reduced by $1,877,332 to bring the total increase down under 3.1%.
Parents and students took particular issue with the district’s proposal to increase spending on iPads for elementary school students, as well as educational consultants.
“Our kids are able to walk around and look at something tangible that they made, not something they pushed on a screen,” said Robert Flegel, an elementary school parent from Briar Ridge Road who serves as president of the Ridgebury PTA.
“Perhaps, instead of wasting thousands of taxpayer dollars on educational consultants, [the board should] consider why Cody Keenan would feel the need to write a letter to his hometown newspaper” in support of English conferences, said Caroline Chanin of Buckspen Lane.
RHS parent Kavitha Vel said the English conferences had helped her daughter, and given her something Vel and her husband did not have growing up.
“Both my husband and I studied in India — we have mathematical skills, we have computational skills, but what we lack are communication skills,” Vel said.
High school students were equally vocal in protesting proposed cuts to the English department at the board’s joint meeting with the RHS student government on Feb. 5.
“I think the issue at the front of all of our minds is the proposed cuts,” student body President Kunal Chauhan told the board on Feb. 5.
The proposed cuts would have meant only freshmen and juniors would continue to have writing conferences. The high school would develop a writing center, Baldwin told the members of student government, and this center would not result in a “less than” learning environment for students.
Secretary JB Blood spoke of the value of one-on-one instruction with a writing coach.
“At Ridgefield High, we’re most thankful for our teachers,” said Blood. “One of the best ways we can connect with them is through programs like writing conferences. … From the first writing conference in the fall on the first paper you write to that last paper you write in the spring, they really follow your journey as an individual, and they become a trusted adult in the building for you to go to.”
The proposed teacher cuts aren’t the only hurdle the board must clear this budget season.
Cutting the school budget down to the 2.5% municipal spending cap would take $2,161,053 out of Baldwin’s original proposed budget, leaving the district with $94,949,382 next year.
Towns that go over the cap receive less money back from the Municipal Revenue Sharing grant — which gives towns some of the money the state collects from sales taxes.
But that grant was eliminated as part of the new state budget that was signed into law at the end of October, leaving the cap essentially toothless — unless the state legislature opts to tack the penalty onto something else.
And as First Selectman Rudy Marconi pointed out Monday night, the law is still on the books.
“I don’t want to be in violation of a state statute, for whatever reason,” he said.
There’s also the legislative side, and whether the cap could be ripped up by the legislature in Hartford in its next session.
“Our deadline for introducing bills was this past Friday, and for the second year, I introduced a bill that would do away with that 2.5% cap,” said state Rep. John Frey (R-111) Monday night. “The cap remains, but the funding source that was the penalty is no longer there.”
Frey said he sees three possible outcomes. The first would be to simply do away with the cap, which Frey gave odds of about 50-50 of happening. The second: the state legislature finds a way to once again fund the revenue-sharing grant.
“I don’t see that happening,” Frey said.
The third scenario, which Marconi pointed out to Frey shortly before the meeting, would be that the state finds an alternative way to penalize municipalities that go over the cap. Frey said he couldn’t guess at the odds of that happening.
“They eliminated the Municipal Revenue Sharing account … but they do have some other grants,” Marconi said. “Could they possibly tie the consequence to that? Yes.”
“The problem with that,” school board chairwoman Fran Walton said, is that if there is a penalty for going over the cap, “it will be decided after we’ve asked our municipalities to vote on the budget.”
“That to me is just ass-backwards,” she added.
The school budget gets some reprieve from the state cap for special education spending. Under the law, “expenditures” on special education are not included in tallying up the cap.
The district could “carve out” special education funding from the overall budget to make it slip below the 2.5% cap — something the board has been told to do repeatedly by the town Board of Finance.
Carving out special education spending from the proposed budget would cut the original budget request down from 4.83% to 3.15%.
But that looked like a dead-end at the Feb. 12 meeting.
“I think the carve-out is a false prophecy,” said Baldwin. “I think it’s just smoke and mirrors. … Last year we started with the carve-out, and we held that firm for three months, and it got us nothing.”
Last year, Baldwin explained to The Press, the district requested a 3.48% increase, which with special education costs carved out put the budget underneath the state cap. The Board of Finance cut the budget anyway, by about $850,000, to bring the overall budget to a 2.5% increase.
“I think whatever the board decides, it needs to be an all-in number,” Baldwin told the board.
Resident John Collins suggested the board keep a backup plan handy.
“I think you have to have two budgets,” he said, “the one you want, and the one you have in your back pocket for when you get cut.”