With a $1.2-million year-end deficit on the horizon, the Board of Education is weighing the prospect of a one-time $543,066 appropriation from the Board of Finance to keep the district’s books out of the red.

The idea was raised by Superintendent Karen Baldwin at the board’s meeting on Monday night, Nov. 27, during a presentation on the district’s budget by Business Manager Paul Hendrickson.

Baldwin suggested requesting the money the town will receive from the state’s Education Cost Sharing grant, or ECS — money meant to help municipalities cover the high costs of education.

“The Board of Finance always has the right to say no,” said board Chairwoman Fran Walton, “but it would be catastrophic, because we’re not allowed to run under a deficit.”

In the 2016-17 school budget, the Board of Finance zeroed out any contribution from the ECS grant for the school district’s operating budget, fearing that Hartford’s budget woes would lead to Ridgefield receiving very little.

But a bipartisan state budget signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy on Halloween restored most of the money the town had received from the ECS grant the previous year — $543,066.

Instead of going directly to the Board of Education, the money from the ECS grant goes to the town’s operating budget.

“Although it’s called the Education Cost Sharing grant, it doesn’t come to us, it goes to the town,” Hendrickson explained. “It is a substantial amount of money. That, combined with a state security grant, could greatly offset any potential deficit.”

The state security grant is a reimbursement for money the schools already spent on installing additional security measures, Hendrickson told the board.

Hendrickson said he believed the money would go to the school budget.

Freeze

The superintendent’s office placed a hard freeze on the budget on Sept. 25, after six special education students who were registered within the public school system had to be placed out of district.

“A good part of this is due to in-migration of special ed children that were already out-placed,” said Hendrickson. “So it wasn’t like fiscal mismanagement at the board level, or the administrative level.”  

Walton said the number of students out-placed was highly unusual.

The 2017-18 school budget was also set back by five special education settlements this fall. The district has an additional seven settlements and one other out-placement decision pending, Hendrickson said.

All these items could impact the operating budget by up to $1 million, Hendrickson’s report said.

The district hired three new elementary teachers after four additional students registered at the last minute, Hendrickson reported, meaning an additional burden to the deficit.

Special education

One piece of good news for the board’s deficit blues came out of Hartford’s newly minted state budget. The legislation finally laid out funding for the state’s special education reimbursement fund, or ECR, which reimburses districts for particularly burdensome costs associated with high-need special education cases.

The state budget increased funding for the ECR by $6.5 million, while keeping the same distribution model for how the money would be doled out to the municipalities as before.

“Based on last year’s December submission of $2,079,904, Ridgefield received ECR of $1,620,434, or 77.9%. Applying last year’s reimbursement percentage of 77.9% to Ridgefield’s pending Dec. 1 claim submission to the state of $1,961,754 would result in an estimated grant of $1,528,384,” the report from the business office said.

“This estimated grant is $72,451 greater than budgeted.”

Other costs

The holiday chill carries with it another problem — the cost of heating oil, which fluctuates year to year depending on the severity of the winter.

A colder than normal winter would negatively impact the budget, Hendrickson’s report said, as would any unforeseen plant expenses, such as repairing a boiler, pumps, or drain lines.

Also up in the air is the cost of electricity, which could rise when the district’s electricity contract resets in December.

Extra costs from substitute teachers, as well as special education substitutes, could also hurt efforts to reduce the deficit.

Baldwin said the board will have to monitor the status of the budget closely.

“If a dark cloud rolled in in January, and we’re still stuck with where we are now, and the Board of Finance rejected the request for a one-time [appropriation] — well, what are your options?” asked board Vice Chairman Doug Silver

“While I’ve never had to go for a one-time appropriation, I’ve seen it occur in communities. … The alternative is destroying your infrastructure and your teaching and learning. Letting people go,” Baldwin responded.

“You’re trying to lower your head count — because that’s really how you recapture that kind of money.”