Schools vow to meet state cap

School officials fended off any commitments about closing a school, but told the finance board Tuesday they’re working to bring next year’s budget in under the proposed 2.5% state spending cap. However, the increase may be higher, since some categories of spending, including special education, are excluded from the calculation.

“The 2.5% cap, is that still a working number?” finance board member Marty Heiser asked.

“We are building our 2017-18 budget, working within that parameter,” Superintendent Karen Baldwin said.

Baldwin unveiled a budget with a 3% increase — totaling $92,827,316, up from $90,374,229 this year — at the Jan. 9 Board of Education meeting.

But she told the finance board Tuesday that school officials aimed to meet the state’s guideline — towns that don’t will face reduced state funding.

“It is challenging,” Baldwin said. “There are things we have to put on hold, and there might even be things we have to carve out and stop, to meet that 2.5%.”

She noted that the state didn’t consider special education, arbitrated settlements, and debt service as part of the budget that had to meet the 2.5% cap.

Baldwin, Business Manager Paul Hendrickson, and Chairwoman Frances Walton said special education costs remain a challenge. The schools are working to hold down the cost of special education “settlements” — cases where parents appeal the district’s plans for their child to state hearings, arbitration, or court.

The district has been making between 15 and 22 settlements a year for the past several years, Baldwin said.

“This is a concerted effort, and it is a system issue,” Baldwin said. “One of the things we’ve learned, really, is when communication breaks down, trust breaks down.” Parents who’ve lost trust in the school system are more inclined to appeal decisions, and sue.

Baldwin said building trust could lead to fewer appeals and settlements that drain financial resources and put the focus on legal contests rather than education.

Salaries, closing

Contracts are another problem, given the 2.5% cap.

Some employee groups are due 3.1% to 3.2% increases. While settlements reached in arbitration are excluded, Ridgefield has tried to reach union contracts without going all the way to arbitration. So the cost of raises and benefits will count toward the 2.5% cap.

Given the continuing enrollment decline, closing one of the six elementary schools has been discussed for years. Finance board members wondered if school officials are serious about it.

“My sense is, this closing a school is just a can being kicked down the road again,” Heiser said.

“We’ll just kind of study it to death and not make a decision,” he said.

Baldwin said the schools are looking at three options. One involves closing Scotland Elementary School and moving fifth graders to the middle schools.

The other two wouldn’t reduce the number of buildings the town operates, but would attempt to fill current empty space at Scotts Ridge Middle School through pocket redistricting.

There were estimates a few years back that closing a school might save $1 million a year, but Baldwin said new calculations found the operating savings to be about $190,000 a year.

There would also be a cost avoidance. If it remains a school, Scotland needs about $750,000 in capital projects — it’s the last school still needing asbestos abatement, there’s an underground tank to replace, and other work is needed. If it’s not a school, that work might be avoided.

“The board met and reviewed the three viable options, and they asked for more data on the three viable options,” Baldwin said. “I think a decision will be made by the end of February.”

Walton said elementary enrollment was declining more slowly than past projections had indicated, and if an elementary building had been closed based on projections in earlier reports, there would be an overcrowding problem now.

Heiser wondered if school officials were simply avoiding the disruption of a closing.

“This is the elephant in the room. It really is,” he said. “There are savings out there, but we’re not willing to do it.”