Schools’ head count attracts budget axe

Before axing $884,000 out of the school budget — the largest school cut in years — the Board of Finance looked closely at the “head count” of school employees.

“From a financial point of view, head count is the whole ball game,” finance board member Marty Heiser told a delegation of school board members and top administrators during their back-and-forth discussions last week.

Before the cut, the school system was budgeting for a workforce of just over 718 positions — 718.3 “full time equivalents,” or FTEs, next year, according to the Board of Education’s budget request.

The $884,000 school cut, lowering the education budget from a 3.48% to a 2.5% increase, was the bulk of the finance board’s effort at spending reduction. The selectmen’s budget was cut $60,000, and reductions to the capital budget totaled $98,000.

This continues a history in which school spending — at $93 million, making up about 66% of Ridgefield’s $141-million proposed budget for 2017-18 — usually absorbs the bulk of the cutting.

Finance Board Chairman Dave Ulmer has a record of the relative size of town and school cuts dating back to 2011-12 — the last time the finance board took nearly $1 million out of the school budget.

  • 2011-12: town cut, $75,000 (0.23%); school cut $850,000 (1.07%).
  • 2012-13: town cut, none ( 0.00%); school cut, $100,000 (0.12%).
  • 2013-14: town cut, $60,000 (0.19%); school cut, $130,000 (0.16%).
  • 2014-15: town cut, none (0.00%); school cut, $70,000 (0.08%).
  • 2015-16: town cut, $90,000 (0.25%); school cut, $400,000 (0.47%).
  • 2016-17: town cut, $40,000 (0.12%); school cut, $625,000 (0.72%).
  • 2017-18: town cut, $60,000 (0.18%); school cut, $884,000 (0.98%).

Yes, the 2011-12 finance board’s school cut of $850,000 was slightly less than this year’s $884,000 reduction, Ulmer noted, but with the growth of the overall budget, this year’s cut amounts to a slightly smaller percentage of school spending.

The fiscal environment was similar, he said.

“That was also with a backdrop of Connecticut budget issues, including a tax hike on higher-income earners as well as other tax/fee increases,” Ulmer said of the 2011-12 cut, which he opposed. “But there was much more public input (over 200 emails and 350 people at the public hearing) not to cut, and there was virtually no public discussion from the Board of Finance members in support of the cut.”

Ulmer also said that 2011-12’s $850,000 cut reduced a proposed increase of about 2.9% to 1.81%, following a year in which the school budget had increased 1.35%

This year’s $884,000 cut reduced the 2017-18 increase from 3.48% to 2.5%, following a budget in which 2016-17 school spending increased 4.99%.

Ulmer said while he and two selectmen had spoken in favor of a smaller cut than $884,000, there was a consensus on both boards that the 3.48% increase sought by the Board of Education this year was too high.

“All of the BOS and BOF members thought that the BOE budget needed a ‘substantial’ cut in order to pass the real test of the electorate/taxpayers,” Ulmer said in an email.

The Board of Education plans to meet next Wednesday, April 19, to discuss where in its $93-million budget the $884,000 reduction will be found.

All aspects of the operation will be examined to meet that level of reduction,” Superintendent Karen Baldwin said. “Personnel, benefits, special education, curriculum, technology, building projects, and energy are all areas that we will continue to assess for potential reductions.”

In addition to worrying whether the school budget, which passed by just 16 votes last year, could win approval from voters this May, finance board members also had questions about special education spending.

But head count was a big focus in discussions that started March 22 and lasted through the finance board’s budget approval April 4.

‘Floating supervisors’

Finance board member Jessica Mancini confessed to having “a bug in my bonnet about floating supervisors.”

Three elementary supervisors have been added to school payroll in recent years — two in 2014-15, and a third in 2015-16. Each serves as an assistant principal splitting time in two of the six elementary schools.

Superintendent Karen Baldwin avidly defended the supervisors. Their work includes special education duties like planning and placement team (PPT) meetings and teacher evaluations that are required by the state. The supervisors reduce the administrative load on principals, freeing them for other educational leadership tasks, according to Baldwin.

“The work of supervision and evaluation of staff requires a great deal of time and attention, as it is focused on evidence of student learning and growth and is standards-based,” she said. “All teachers are evaluated; evaluation includes a goal-setting conference in the fall connected to student learning objectives, a mid-year evaluation conference, and an end-of-year conference and summative written evaluation.”

Non-tenured teachers’ evaluations require three classroom observations, and tenured teachers must be observed twice each year — in addition to conferences, reviews of practice, and a “summative evaluation.”  

The PPTs for special education students can “take up a full day of programming,” Baldwin said.

“The supervisors take on the leadership of the special education and related service teams in their buildings and work with these staff to lead case management reviews, improve communication between school and families,” and much more, she said.

The additional administrators reflect changes to education that come down from state and federal levels, Baldwin told the finance board.

“The standards have changed, evaluations have changed, expectations have changed,” Baldwin said.

“I understand school isn’t business,” Mancini replied. “But there’s a point where, in this economy … we have to look at these administrative positions and say, Are they really necessary?”

School administrators’ work is increasingly complex, Baldwin said, and the DRG-A (District Reference Group A) schools that Ridgefield is compared to average one assistant principal for every 498 students, while Ridgefield averages one for every 680 students.

“From my perspective as a superintendent,” Baldwin said, keeping three elementary supervisors is a “non-negotiable” need.

“It’s a totally different environment,” Baldwin said. “The bottom line: Leadership matters.”

Head count falling?

Has the head count of staff in the schools started falling as enrollment continues to drop?

The enrollment of students is projected decline from 4,970 this year to 4,917 projected for 2017-18, down 53 students.

Heiser, long skeptical school payroll rising as enrollment falls, managed to find a positive outlook to share with the school board.

“A simple message is: This is the first time in six years head count is actually going down,” he said.

But Michael Raduazzo, who served on the school board before the finance board, had a different perspective.

Yes, the head count of just over 718 is down about five positions from the current year’s actual staffing of over 723 full time employees.

But the current school budget as it was presented to voters last May projected a lower figure, about 717 FTEs — one less than next year’s projected 718.

And that’s the standard comparison used in school budgeting: ”Everything else is budget to budget,” Raduzzo told Heiser.

Of course, there are reasons the staff increased.

Enrollment changes are part of the story. Enrollment was projected at 4,936 students last May, but the “actual” enrollment this year is 4,970 — 34 students more.

About five employees were added early this school year as the realities of enrollment and class sizes became apparent.

“There were three classes at maximum, and when they broke that was three elementary school teachers,” school Board Chairwoman Frances Walton told The Press.

Also, five paraprofessionals were added in special education.

Positions ‘eliminated’

The 2017-18 budget presented by Superintendent Baldwin and approved by the school board says 7.45 positions were “eliminated in fiscal year 2017-18 to achieve the 2.50% municipal spending cap.”

The budget lists the “FTE’s” cut as: 1 K-12 STEM Supervisor; 1.55 Ridgefield High School teachers; 3 middle school teachers; 1 technology integrator; 0.80 for middle school special education department chairs; 0.10 FTE for a pre-school coordinator.

The largest reduction was the three middle school teachers, achieved by reorganizing East Ridge Middle School’s sixth grade as three rather than two teaching teams.

That cost-saving should be repeated each the next two years. The two-team distribution beginning in sixth grade next year will move up to sixth and seventh grade in 2018-19, and becomes a sixth through eighth grade program in 2019-20.

A rising cost related to school staffing is health insurance. It’s increasing from $13.2 million to $14.3 million, up $1.2 million or 9.18% in the proposed budget.

The primary cause of this isn’t greater staff size, but this year’s health insurance “experience” — there were 18 serious illnesses with insurance claims that exceed the school system’s “stop-loss” threshold, the finance board was told.

Special education

Before the finance board’s $884,000 cut, the school budget request called for a 3.48% increase — from $90.4 million to $93.5 million, up $3.1 million.

School officials made this 3.48% fit under the state’s 2.5% spending increase cap by “carving out” special education costs, as allowed by the state’s cap rules.

About 20% of Ridgefield students get special education of some kind.

And special education costs are growing at a much steeper rate — up $1.2 million, or 9.22%, from $13.2 million this year to $14.4 million next year.

Assistant Superintendent for Special Education Dr. Kim Hapken told the finance board that the district is working to hold down the climb in special education costs — including those for “outplaced” students whose disabilities dictate education outside the Ridgefield Public Schools, but at taxpayers’ expense.

The budget request showed 19 “outplaced” students costing $2,013,000 in 2016-17, and projects that outplacements costs will increase to $2,030,000 for 2017-18. That projection assumes no additional outplaced students move to town, and no more students get assigned for outplacement through the planning and placement process.

The schools are improving communication with families, Dr. Hapken said, and hope this will reduce extended legal battles and costly “settlements” of disputes.

“The news is, these families aren’t bringing attorneys to these meetings, so we’re establishing better relationships,” Hapken said.

Passing the budget

Concern that voters might not pass the school budget also worried the finance board.

“The community will not have these tax increases much over 2%,” said Mancini.

Finance board member Sean Connelly said many parents who favor changes to school start times, based on health concerns, don’t seem eager to back the budget.

The school board and administration didn’t included a school start times initiative — which could increase bussing costs — in the 2017-18 budget. They’ll study the issue and consider it for the 2018-19 budget year, they say — and they’ve begun holding focus groups.

But Connelly worried that “people who would normally support the education budget” would vote against it, or stay home, as a protest over the failure to act on start times.

Heiser recalled last year’s close passage of the school budget.

“That 16 vote margin,” he said. “If it gets voted down, that’s not good for anybody.”