School board reconsiders rainy day fund

A carryover fund — money left over from the current school budget to be used for unexpected future costs — is back on the table at the Board of Education.
Under state law, the schools are allowed to hold back up to 1% of the total school year budget for unexpected costs. For the current $95 million 2018-19 budget — the budget approved by voters in May 2018 — that would mean the schools could hold onto a little less than $1 million.
“You can have this account by state law,” Superintendent Dr. William Collins told the board at its Feb. 25 meeting.
Ordinarily, money in the school budget that’s not spent during the school year would be returned to the town. Last year, schools sent back about $150,000 to the town — money they could have deposited into the carryover fund, according to Collins.
The school board tried to set up an account under the state law last year through an amendment to the town charter, but that attempt died before voters saw the proposal.
Board member Fran Walton, who chaired the school board at the time, said the request for a carryover fund did not make it past a discussion by the members of the Charter Revision Commission.
“I went there to make our case and, shall we say, they did not support us,” Walton said. “Basically, we were told that we could go to the Board of Finance for a one-time appropriation.”
School boards are prohibited by law from ending the school year in debt — “you can’t run out of money, that’s cardinal [rule],” Collins said.
But the new superintendent, who’s first day in the district was Feb. 19, also suggested the law gives the board more authority than it previously thought.
“State law trumps town charter, did you know that?” Collins said.
That raised some eyebrows around the table.
“I think I speak for the board when I say we would be happy to have this conversation again,” said Walton. “Perhaps with your help, the conversation might go a little differently.”
Governor’s budget
The topic came up amidst a discussion on Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed state budget, which could signal additional costs for Ridgefield.
Lamont’s budget includes a proposal that would put some of the state’s teacher pension costs onto towns and cities. That plan would see well-off communities, like Ridgefield, pay an additional percentage into the plan, based on the amount it pays its full-time employees over the statewide median for salaries that meet the pension requirement.
Collins said the board should come up with a policy for how the funds will be used before it approaches the town about creating a carryover account.
Board member Sharon D’Orso, who heads the board’s policy committee, said they would look into the matter.
Collins said that in his previous district — he served as the Superintendent of Newington Public Schools through the summer of 2018 — the fund was used for unexpected items, or major infrastructure or equipment costs. Many of the surrounding districts have a similar fund, he told the board.
“The fact that you’re not is kind of silly [because] you have a perfectly good way of keeping a lid on some of your costs,” he said.