School board approves 3.6% budget increase

Elementary art teachers and infrastructure repair costs have Ridgefield’s proposed education budget increasing slightly as it heads for review by the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance next month.
The Board of Education voted Monday, Feb. 25, to ask for $98,423,760 budget proposal for the 2019-20 school year. The figure represents a 3.6% increase over the 2018-19 budget.
It’s also an increase over the 3.43% originally proposed by Interim Superintendent JeanAnn Paddyfote in January.
The eight board members voted unanimously in favor of the increase, with Vice Chairman Doug Silver absent from Monday’s meeting.
The increased budget request adds back $109,000 for six elementary art teachers. That cut, which reduces the six full-time positions each by 20%, was proposed due to declining enrollment at the elementary students.
School staff, parents, and students protested the reduction at multiple budget meetings, and the board signaled two weeks ago that it would keep the art positions if other reductions could be found in the budget.
Also included in the approved budget is $107,159 for elementary office paraprofessionals, who were cut in the original budget proposal.
Superintendent Dr. William Collins, who took over from Paddyfote days before on Feb. 19, indicated he was not comfortable with the cut as a matter of safety during dismissal hours.
“I think it’s a dangerous thing to do, to be perfectly honest,” Collins said.
Adding the paraprofessionals back in will ensure there are always at least two people in the main office, the superintendent explained.
“We need to be ever so mindful that students are going where they’re supposed to go,” he added, something that “can be a problem in custody disputes.”
The board also green-lit $75,000 to begin renovations on the bathrooms at Ridgefield High School.
Collins said those renovations should take priority, because the school is currently undergoing its accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). Collins previously worked on the NEASC team evaluating Ridgefield, before he was hired as superintendent for the district.
If the NEASC team decides the school bathrooms don’t match up to the rest of the school, he said, the state of the bathrooms could be a mark against Ridgefield High School.
“We want to keep ourselves away from that at all costs, and keep everything focused on curriculum and instruction,” he said.
The board also agreed to an extra $77,347 for the facilities and maintenance budget, after a walk-through of the school buildings turned up some aging school equipment and infrastructure.
Cost cutting
To pay for the additions, Collins proposed restructuring the special education department by hiring a full-time certified behavior analyst, and part-time staff — including a speech language pathologist — equivalent to a second full-time position. The move would cut spending on contracted special education services from the Center for Children with Special Needs, saving $206,000.
“It would save a good amount of money, because their daily rates are quite expensive,” said Dr. Elizabeth Hannaway, head of the district special education services.
She said families who use CCSN services would be transitioned off.
“Having full-time [employee] gives us a degree of flexibility that we don’t have right now,” she added.
The move is not a total move away from contracted special ed services, as some children with more “nuanced” needs will continue to need additional help, Hannaway said.
STEM supervisor
The board drew the line over another cut proposed by Collins, which would reduce a supervisor position that oversees district curriculum in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
“I think this actually gives me pause, because the last six months we’ve heard how needed this position is,” said board member Fran Walton. “My understanding is it would touch every student in the district.”
“Without the position, to Fran’s concern, what happens to professional development?” asked board member Carina Borgia-Drake.
Collins said the district’s curriculum team could take up some of the slack. He also suggested that if more money was available in the budget as the 2019-20 school year goes on, the district could fill the position midway through the year.
But board secretary Kathleen Holz seemed unconvinced that the schools would be able to attract a good candidate for the job.
In the end, the board decided to put the funding for the STEM supervisor back on the table, for a total budget increase of 3.6%
The budget will now go before the Board of Selectmen, which issues a non-binding recommendation to the Board of Finance. The Board of Finance will hold a public hearing on March 25, before making its adjustments, if any, to the school budget in April, and sending the budget to the annual town meeting on May 6.