Whew, that was close.

District administrators finally breathed a sigh of relief Monday night after fearing for months that a bailout would be necessary to prevent Ridgefield schools from ending the 2017-18 fiscal year in the red.

“I cannot promise now that we will end the year with the surplus, but my best-faith estimate is that we’re going to be OK,” acting superintendent Dr. Robert Miller told the Board of Education at its April 16 meeting.

The town’s public schools have been operating under a spending freeze since September, a situation that made the school board consider a special appropriation request from the town’s Board of Finance.

Miller said his recommendation to not seek the payout from the finance board was largely because of lower health benefits claims this year compared to previous years.

“We did have some staff members that, whether they got married or just had to drop off the health benefits in order to go to their spouse, that was a net positive for us,” Miller said.

He credited the improved situation to interim Business Manager Allan Cameron, who came on in January after Business Manager Paul Hendrickson retired in December.

Cameron brought a “fresh set of eyes” to the district’s budget, Miller said, and helped with how the district forecasts what special education grants are coming from the state, and in what amounts.

“[Cameron’s] best recommendation is that we’ll be able to end the year in the positive, without having to go for a special appropriation,” Miller said.    

‘Really hard year’

Board of Education Chairwoman Fran Walton applauded the work done by Cameron and his staff, but noted how difficult it has been navigating — and controlling — spending this year.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work by the schools,” she told The Press shortly after the board’s Monday night meeting.

“I think it’s hard to measure what’s been lost,” she said, when asked about what has been affected most by the budget freeze.

“It was just a really hard year. A difficult year.”

The board decided not to vote on a special appropriation, which was listed as a possible item on the meeting’s agenda.   

Savings from the freeze

The superintendent’s office placed a hard freeze on discretionary accounts in the fall after eight new students entered the district with special education plans that placed them in schools out of the district.

Three additional students were also placed out of district by their special education plans, and the schools also faced 10 settlements related to special education, Miller said in his memo to the board.

The schools have estimated the cost of potentially paying out two more settlements that are currently being decided through hearings, Miller said.

Special education costs are expected to go over budget by a little more than $1.5 million, according to Cameron’s end-of-March budget projections.

Miller said the freeze saved the schools about $130,000 in salaries, $447,000 in benefits, and $953,000 in other expenses.

As of March 31, the schools have spent a little more than 97.5% of the total $92.6-million budget for the 2017-18 school year.

Under state law, boards of education are barred from ending the school year in debt.

Miller acknowledged that the essentially year-long spending freeze had been taxing on the district’s staff.

“We’re talking about library books that went unpurchased,” Miller said. “Instead of repairing a Smart Board, we’ll just move a Smart Board from another room. … Those are some of the things that we’ve said no to.”