Story by David DesRoches for Dariein Times, April 12, 2012:
Elementary school Spanish could be dead before it had a chance to live.
The Board of Finance expressed its desire to cut the Board of Education’s budget by roughly $442,000 on Tuesday, to keep the mill rate hike at around 4%. Finance Chairman Liz Mao told the Board of Ed that finding this money should be “relatively easy.”
“I know you’ve managed things well,” Mao said. “You’ve managed it so well, with a $900,000 deficit in special ed (this year), you’ve found it by finding $479,000 in fixed costs, personnel and overhead. That’s a considerable amount of money. What that tells me is there’s a little cushion in the budget.”
“I think there’s some overhead that might be a little fluffy, let’s put it that way,” Mao added.
School board Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross was in the audience and told Mao that the schools continually defer buying books and other services that impact learning. “We’ve deferred, deferred and deferred,” Hagerty-Ross said. “Every time we have a deficit, we’re deferring things our children need. This year, in our opinion, has cleaned us out.”
The schools projected a deficit early in the school year of around $250,000, with special ed costs running over and reduced reimbursements from the state to cover excessive spending on special ed. To this point, the schools have taken $160,000 from the general education budget to plug the gap, Hagerty-Ross said.
For next year, Mao suggested that the schools could deduct $150,000 from its pension fund obligations, leaving the schools to cut another $291,000 from its spending plan to minimize the tax rate increase.
“I think you can probably find it and look in the same places where you found that $479,000 rather quickly,” Mao said.
“Our new initiatives are 0.92(%), so there you go,” Hagerty-Ross said, referring to the Spanish language program at the elementary schools, which would cost about $344,000, and the proposed addition of a social worker and school psychologist, as well as a new high school teacher. There is also some extra money planned for technology spending next year.
Mao weighed in on the Spanish program. “Personally I think the new language initiative is too expensive,” she said. “It’s not a language program, it’s familiarization with world cultures… I think that’s something the Board of Ed might want to look at.”
Martha Banks, finance board vice chairman, also urged the schools to increase its anticipated reimbursement from the state for special ed excess costs, which would lessen the town’s anticipated funding obligation. This money is paid to Darien for children whose individual expenses are 4.5-times the per pupil cost of the average student.
But with costs per student going down because of efficiencies made in special education service delivery, Darien is eligible for less money from the state, said Dr. Stephen Falcone, schools superintendent. The school board cut its expected reimbursements to $2 million next year, which is down about $540,000 from what it’s hoping to get this year.
The conundrum gains complexity when examining the entire situation. This year, the schools planned on spending $3.5 million in reimbursable expenses, but budgeted to get $2.9 million, knowing that the state has been cutting how much it pays localities. But then 59 students flooded special education unexpectedly, which essentially diluted the pool of available money because the schools were providing those services without hiring additional staff. As money gets spread around, the more efficient the schools are and the less money there is from the state.
Banks examined past trends with the state’s excess costs and noted that Darien has never received less than 1.75% of the total available money. Under the schools’ current estimation, it would only be getting 0.7% of the available money, according to Banks.
“It looks like you’ve under-funded,” Banks said, adding that the schools could add about $200,000 to this amount, which would leave another $91,000 to be cut.
Hagerty-Ross and other school board members appeared frustrated, as excess cost concerns have been a topic of discussion at nearly every board meeting this year. And given that they under-funded this year, and were criticized for it, and are now being asked to increase this number, a mood of consternation was almost palpable.
“It’s a stretch to go in this direction,” Hagerty-Ross said. “To handcuff us to a number that we don’t believe we can make, it’s setting us up for another deficit next year.”
But Mao said that if the finance board’s numbers were wrong, the schools could come to them for additional money. Other finance board members noted that there is a special education contingency fund to cover overages in that account, and an additional $96,000 is coming back to the schools as it was not reimbursed its maximum amount last year for excess costs.
In the total budget, the finance board found $2.2 million it could save on next year’s expenses through savings in debt service and medical insurance. They also increased revenue estimates and chose to fund the $750,000 Middlesex Middle School roof replacement with this year’s money instead of including it in capital expenses.
The elementary Spanish program was the only specific item the finance board mentioned for possible elimination, although it does not have authority to cut any specific line items from the school budget, aside from capital projects.
Without the Board of Finance’s proposed cuts, the $111,008,761 tax-funded budget would create a mill rate of $12.73 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The current rate is 12.20, and with the finance board’s suggested cuts, the rate would be 12.68.
The finance board also expressed its desire to cut security cameras from the schools capital projects, which would save $117,000. All other capital expenses appear safe.
The schools met on Wednesday for its bimonthly meeting, and the finance board is slated to vote on the school budget tonight at 7:30 in Town Hall. The Representative Town Meeting is scheduled to vote on the town and school budgets separately on Monday, May 14.
Bruce Orr, RTM’s Finance & Budget Committee chairman, declined to speculate on whether the RTM would approve the Board of Finance’s adjusted budget.