School board executive committee releases statement in face of budget cap

Editor's note: The following statement was released from the Ridgefield Board of Education's Executive Committee Tuesday night. To read more about the district's budget situation, pickup a copy of Thursday's Ridgefield Press.

The 2018-19 Ridgefield Public Schools budget is significantly challenged by double digit healthcare increases and unexpected special education costs that are in addition to the contractual obligations and costs of maintaining our existing programs and services.

Our Superintendent’s initial proposed budget represented a 4.83% increase over last year’s approved budget. The proposed budget was derived from the priorities the BOE developed in the fall. We are now being asked to “cap” that increase to 2.5% ($94,949,382). Reducing the proposed budget to this amount would require an additional decrease in the proposed budget of $2,161,053.

It is important to note that if we rolled over the 2017-18 operating budget with no new programs or positions and just met the legal and contractual increases, without the new special education costs, the increase would be 3.34% (about $777,664 more than the 2.5% increase).

The 2.5% limit is a municipal spending cap established under Connecticut General Statute, Section 4-661.  Currently, the legislation has no penalties for towns that exceed this spending cap. However the legislation is still recognized as a state statute by the First Selectman Marconi, who spoke last night about the town’s obligation to follow the law. This cap bundles the town and school sides of the budget into a single percentage. Mr. Frey also spoke to the Board of Education on Feb. 12 and indicated that although there are not penalties now, the legislature could change that in the coming session.

Subsequently, last night the BOE asked the superintendent to revise the initial budget with a 3.1 % increase and to reduce in areas that would have as little impact on the classroom as possible. However, with all honesty, we know that all education expenses have eventual impact on the classroom. The board acknowledged that this reduction presents far more “risk” in the budget.

So what else can be done? Some potential savings may be found in health care and we have asked our insurance broker to continue to work with us in an attempt to reduce the renewal rate.  There may be savings in our transportation costs and that is being reviewed. These are two of our biggest opportunities, but we are exploring everything.

What cannot be done? We cannot ignore that a budget at 2.5% is not in the best educational interest of our children. The request for a 3.1% increase will also pose severe challenges to the system. This fact needs to be fully understood by the community that has invested so much in it for so long.

The BOE is responsible to serve the educational interests of students and cannot advance a budget that does not allow the district to meet the goal and objectives of the school system. We are still actively engaged in conversations about the budget that the BOE will adopt and forward to the BOF and BOS.  We will work hard to find efficiencies in the current proposed budget and approve a budget that advances education in Ridgefield in a fiscally responsible way, but not at the expense of our students.  

Budget challenges are not unique to Ridgefield. Neighboring towns in our DrG (District Reference Group) and across the state are struggling to develop balanced budgets as the percent increase due to legal and contractual obligations is outpacing the cost of living increase that is often used to help frame the desired year-over-year increase. Every district is facing hard decisions about what to cut. The fact we spend the least among them on a per student basis just makes our task even more difficult.

Please continue to stay informed about the budget process.  There is a public hearing on the Superintendent’s proposed operating budget for 2018-19 on Feb. 24 at 10 a.m. in the BOE meeting room in the Town Annex. On Monday, Feb. 26, the BOE votes to adopt the budget that will be forwarded to the Board of Finance.

Fran Walton, Doug Silver and Margaret Stamatis