Cutting academic programs and spring sports would be disruptive and unfair to Ridgefield students and athletes.

Those were the sentiments expressed by students during the public hearing portion of Monday’s Board of Education meeting. They came in response to an online story by The Press that outlined Superintendent Karen Baldwin’s proposed 2017-18 budget cuts if the district didn't receive an estimated $1.2 million special appropriation from the Board of Finance.

Baldwin told the finance board Jan. 16 the district would consider layoffs or cutting spring sports if its appropriation request was denied.

“For us, these teams are our heart and soul,” said student athlete Tom Vilinskis, who wore his RHS athletics sweatshirt to the meeting.

“To take away any of them,” he said, would be “a loss,” adding that cutting athletics in the spring would be particularly unfair, as for some student athletes those are the only teams they compete on.

“[RHS] athletics programs speak for themselves,” Vilinskis said. “Almost all of our programs are self-sustaining. … Why [should] we have to feel the effects of this?”

RHS student representative and senior class President Kunal Chauhan said, “Cutting sports would create a disruption that would be equal to that of academics.”

RHS senior Callie McQuilkin issued a joint statement with classmates Sage Tzamouranis and Ben Spiegelman.

“We understand that the board may consider laying off district teachers. We do not envy your position and we understand that difficult sacrifices will inevitably follow. However, on behalf of ourselves and the student body, we would like to express our hope that academic programs will not be cut.”

‘Fluff’

Student Max Cumming said, “Without these teachers that have poured their heart and souls … I would not be the person I am today.” Layoffs would mean there would be fewer teachers, he said, and “it means that teachers will not have the time to help that struggling child in the back of the room.”

Tzamouranis agreed that core academics should not be cut — but he countered that there is likely “fluff” in the school budgets that could be cut, citing the practice of school buses driving door to door to pick up and drop off students.

Chairwoman Fran Walton said the schools have a “policy framework around buses because of the safety concerns because of the nature of our roads.”

Clearing the deficit

On social media, the district denied plans to cut spring sports.

“Ridgefield Press reported last week that Dr. Baldwin stated spring sports could be cut. This was NOT the case and is not currently an option being considered,” the district said via its Twitter account.

The current school year budget is facing a potential shortfall of some $1.2 million.

“Boards of education are not allowed to end the year with a deficit,” said Walton, tapping the table for emphasis.

That means that the district will have to deal with any runover expenses by the end of the year — something that will likely require a one-time appropriation from the Board of Finance, which if approved, would go to the voters.

If the appropriation failed to pass, however, the schools might have to take drastic steps to end the year with a balanced checkbook.

“Issues around spring athletics came out of the meeting with the Board of Finance,” Baldwin said at the opening of her presentation on the 2018-19 school budget, which she emphasized was separate from the discussion about this year’s budget woes.

“We would go through both a public hearing and a town meeting — they might be on the same day,” Board of Finance Chairman Dave Ulmer explained at the Jan. 16 meeting.

The request for the appropriation would probably be made in early March, Baldwin said, after the district makes its second request for a reimbursement on special education spending from the state.

“The worry that was brought up when we started this whole conversation was that we’d have the special appropriation around the same time as the annual budget,” said Baldwin Monday.

Rather than impose an additional tax on townspeople, Ulmer said, the appropriation would be used to wipe the district’s slate clean. It would come out of the town’s general fund, which functions a little like a piggy bank for the town, he said.

“Dave Ulmer made it clear that the general fund is being kept to keep taxes low,” Walton said.

She added that people showing up to support the appropriation when it does go to a hearing would certainly help.