Teachers to textbooks: Board eyes cuts

Cutting an elementary school teacher saves $71,900, a special education secretary’s job pays $50,000, and then take $105,000 worth of new textbooks out of the budget — that’s part of a proposed cuts list to accommodate the finance board’s $884,000 reduction to the school budget.

The presentation got an unenthusiastic greeting from the Board of Education Wednesday, April 19.

“The textbooks, that’s all your textbooks, isn’t it?” said school board chairwoman Frances Walton.

“Yes,” said Kimberly Beck, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

But, the finance board had reduced the $93-million school budget’s proposed increase from the 3.48% sought by Superintendent Karen Baldwin and approved by Board of Education to 2.50%, as recommended by the selectmen. And the $884,000 has to be made up somewhere.

No cuts were voted on Wednesday night — the board expects to do that chore at Monday night’s meeting.

The unknown

The biggest single item in the cut list presented by Superintendent Baldwin was something of an unknown.

“We’ve identified close to $200,000 in possible saving in health insurance,” Baldwin told the board. “We’re cautiously optimistic about that.”

The school administration planned to meet with union representatives about the possible savings at the end of this week.

Since the collaboration of unions is critical to the savings, and the discussions hadn’t taken place, Dr. Baldwin was reluctant to discuss specifics of the proposal on Wednesday night.

She did say the idea came from Rob Fitzpatrick, the schools’ consultant on employee benefits, based on discussions with Anthem — the health insurance company providing next year’s coverage.

The goal isn’t to negotiate reduced health benefits, she insisted.

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

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

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

School board members were eager to hear more, since the roughly $200,000 in health benefit savings was the biggest item on the list.

“That just seems like a huge number,” James Keidel said. “That’s a quarter of what we’re taking out.”

Baldwin said she’d look for grounds to have a closed-door discussion Monday night before the regular meeting, at which the budget cuts are expected to be approved in public session.

The context of the possible $200,000 savings is a $92.6-million proposed school budget, where health benefits for the school system’s roughly 718 employees are scheduled to cost $14.4 million in 2017-18, up $1.2 million or over 9% from $13.2 million this year.

Different departments

Dr. Baldwin’s cuts proposal came a variety of categories.

Personnel savings total $171,900, and included:

  •  $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 moved creates “risk” by eliminating the one extra position budgeted to create new sections when class size guidelines are exceeded.
  • $50,000 saved by cutting a secretary’s position in the central office staff of the special education department — a position that is currently vacant because someone retired.
  • $70,000 in savings to health benefits costs are expected as a result of reducing those two full time positions, the elementary teacher and the special education secretary.
  • $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. More training programs will be scheduled after school or on holidays.

Special education cuts

Cuts in the roughly $14 million Special Education Department budget amounted to $96,714. The special ed cuts included:

  • A $29,310 reduction to money for the Connecticut Center for Special Needs (CCSN), which provides Board Certified Behavior Analysts to work with children with significant disabilities and “support students with challenging behaviors.” Even with the cut, the budget would still allocate $997,000 for CCSN.
  • The $360,000 extended school year program — summer programs for special ed students who would lose too much ground if they had the summer off — would be reduced $23,404. This reflects revised enrollment due to changing student needs, Special Education Director Dr. Kim Hapken said.
  • The budget for special education testing materials would be reduced $15,000, from $40,000 to $25,000.
  • The $40,000 purchase of 13 “FM systems” for students with hearing problems will be stretched out over two years — reducing next year’s request to $20,000. The equipment had been rented at a cost of about $25,000 a year.

Other savings

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

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

The $1.9-million energy budget would be reduced by $15,000, representing lower propane expenditures at Ridgefield High School.

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 savings on hardware and software by dropping plans to upgrade the music technology lab, and also by dropping a maintenance contract on the school systems’ 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 maintained and other savings found.

In addition to the $105,000 reduction for textbook purchases, the curriculum and instruction budget would be reduced $35,735 from the various schools’ accounts for purchase of “instructional materials.”

Reductions in personnel?

All the cuts specified 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.

The administration approached the task of finding cuts with a goal of “keeping significant reductions away from children and programs,” Baldwin said.

Walton thought they did a good job.

“There’s very little in personnel here,” she said.

That probably won’t remain the case, Baldwin said, if the planned talks with the unions don’t result in Anthem reducing the health insurance costs by the $200,000.

“Should the health insurance option not be agreed upon, we would make reductions in personnel,” Dr. Baldwin said.

Class sizes

The personnel reductions could be accomplished by adjustments to minimum class sizes, resulting in a need for 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.”

Higher class size maximums was a troubling prospect for 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…”

Dr. Baldwin said the administration had already 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,” Baldwin said.

“I heard loud and clear we have to have a commitment to get those kids through that.

Year-end spending?

Some cuts may be made up using money in this year’s budget that wasn’t spent as originally intended and seems like it might be left over — something that happens every year in the give and take of a $93-million budget that isn’t supposed to have cost overruns.

Board chairwoman Walton raised the possibility.

“About the textbooks,” she said, “the finance board doesn’t like to hear this, but if we have some money left at the end of the year…”

“That’s part of our plan,” said Superintendent Baldwin.