A little creativity goes a long way.

It’s a lesson all Ridgefield students learn throughout the year, and one that the Board of Education and Superintendent Karen Baldwin demonstrated Monday night.

Baldwin got the district’s proposed 2017-18 operating budget under the state’s 2.5% spending cap by electing to redistrict the town’s six elementary schools to create an even “three and three” split between the two middle schools. Scotland, Barlow Mountain, and Ridgebury students will go to Scotts Ridge, and Branchville, Farmingville, and Veterans Park students will go to East Ridge.

The move will affect 47 graduating fifth grade students this year, and results in the elimination of three middle school teachers.

It also means that the district will not have to close Scotland Elementary School, which the board had discussed several times over the last four months.

The superintendent’s proposed $93,517,544 budget, which will receive a public hearing Saturday, Feb. 25, at Scotts Ridge Middle School, is a 3.48% increase from the $90,374,229 spent during the 2016-17 school year.

According to state guidelines, the spending cap allows the district to withhold special education costs — $14,450,752 in next year’s proposed budget — from consideration. After carving out that figure, Baldwin told the board the district’s budget increase is exactly 2.5%.

“This budget did necessitate tough decisions and it is quite possible that it necessitates further hard decisions,” said Baldwin about having to cut three teachers from the budget, in addition to four other full-time positions.

The faculty reductions, coupled with a change in health insurance providers and the elimination of maintenance projects at Scotts Ridge, resulted in savings of more than $925,242.

Baldwin was also able to find $256,719 in savings at the board’s Feb. 6 meeting, cutting three paraeducators earlier and trimming from other parts of the budget.

Who’s affected?

The redistricting will begin with incoming sixth graders this fall.

Baldwin said that 47 children, who were set to attend East Ridge Middle School, will instead be enrolled at Scotts Ridge.

According to the superintendent, there will be 11 East Ridge families with a younger sibling at one middle school and an older child at the other.

She told the board Monday night that these families can opt to have the older students join their younger brothers and sisters at Scotts Ridge during the 2017-18 school year or stay at the school they’re currently enrolled in until they graduate.

“This would seem to be a very strong, positive decision in terms of accomplishing savings, having minimal disruption on families. I think it’s the best option available to us,” Baldwin said.

Budget cuts

In addition to the three middle school teachers, the superintendent proposed to cut a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) supervisor, a full-time high school teacher, and an elementary technology teacher from the 2017-18 budget.

Baldwin said the key budget driver is teacher salaries — $46,014,026, a 0.8% increase from last year and 49% of the 2017-18 budget.

What else is causing the budget to bloat?

Employee benefits.

Baldwin said because of significant health insurance claims this past year, the budget line for benefits is increasing 7.18%, which represents $18,478,100 of the total budget.

There’s also an increase in tuition expenses, from $1,074,581 to $1,493,213.

The superintendent said tuition increases are due to “changes in our needs relative to out-of-state tuition for children with special needs.”

The district’s investment in technology is also causing a spike. Software for a new music technology course at the high school will cost $10,073.

The total budget for educational technology is $386,417 — a 19.32% increase from this year’s $323,856.

Transportation

Transportation costs are increasing 3.2%, from $5,329,926 in 2016-17 to $5,501,705 in next year’s budget.

Baldwin said that no savings have been reported yet from Montana-based consultants Education Logistics, which was hired in January to optimize busing routes.

She said Education Logistics is looking at possible alternatives for later high school start times, but changing school start times is not being taken into consideration when looking at this year’s budget.

What’s next

There will be a public hearing Saturday, Feb. 25, at 10 a.m. in the Scott Ridge Middle School auditorium.

The budget is still subject to change within the coming weeks, Baldwin said Monday.

The board will vote on the final budget at its meeting Monday, Feb. 27, which is set to begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Town Hall Annex.