School budget requests, learning to manage with less

School budget requests, learning to manage with less

New technology, course materials, teacher training, science equipment, social workers, security officers -- those are some items that school officials wrestle to fund these days as they devise annual budget requests for their districts.

Against the backdrop of the national recession, school districts across the area have held down spending for the past seven years.

With the economy in a slow recovery, local superintendents are generally seeking 3 to 4 percent spending increases for the 2014-15 school year, half of the size of increases many sought a decade ago.

The tighter proposed budgets could satisfy taxpayers, but some educators are asking at what price?

"What we are seeing happening across the board is that districts try to limit damage, so class sizes increase and the number of programs decrease, and maintenance is delayed," said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. "We've seen administrative staff reduced so much that that's why we advocated for a reduction in the number of observations that they conduct for teacher evaluations. There's a price to pay."

Some say declining enrollments, more astute budget planning, lower salary contracts and pragmatism are responsible for the more modest requests.

With small budget increases over the years, however, school administrators say there is not much left to cut.

In Newtown, the proposed budget would eliminate 18 teaching jobs. In New Milford, half a special education teaching position, two special education tutors, a custodian and half a secretarial position are on the chopping block. In Bethel, cuts are proposed in special education and transportation.

A range of requests

Bethel Superintendent Kevin Smith has asked for a 3.4 percent increase for next year, following six years with an average 2. 2 percent spending increase. New Fairfield Superintendent Alicia Roy has asked for a 2.8 increase.

Ridgefield Superintendent Deborah Low has asked for a 3.34 percent increase -- a far cry from her district's 10. 5 percent increase of 2004.

Superintendents' spending increase requests for next year range from a high of 4.4 percent in Brookfield to a low of 0.75 percent in Newtown. But a superintendent's budget request is only the first step in a long budget process.

The Board of Education gets to tinker with the numbers, then the selectmen have at it, before the Board of Finance give a district's proposed budget the stamp of approval.

So far, this year, the average superintendent request across the state is 3.3 percent, which is a little higher than last year's 2.2 allotment but far less than a decade ago, when requests could be 10 percent and final budgets passed with 6 or 7 percent increases.

"We've been very cautious about what we have asked for because, even though the economy is improving you don't see it at the local level," New Milford Superintendent JeanAnn Paddyfote said. "It's very challenging. We have nearly a million square feet of instructional space to maintain. Sometimes it's tempting to cut maintenance in order to keep personnel, but it won't work over time."

After years of budgets that had zero, zero, .44, .64 and 2.89 percent increases, the New Milford Board of Education just reduced Paddyfote's proposed 3.61 percent increase to a 3.2 percent increase.

Ninety percent of this year's proposed increase is for salaries and benefits and the rest is for an after school intervention program for struggling students, software licensing costs, and an increase in the bus contract, Paddyfote said.

Planning over time makes managing with less money possible, Danbury Superintendent Sal Pascarella said. "We did a strategic early retirement plan that saved $1 million over five years so we could open our new school," he said. "That's all good planning."

For 2014-15, Pascarella's requested a 3. 9 percent spending increase, which benefits from a huge reduction in health insurance costs.

They went from a 15 percent increase or $1 million hike last year to a 3 percent increase in this proposal due to a new high deductable plan for all employees and a self insurance plan with the city.

Over the years, the district reduced administration staff by two-thirds and moved teacher supports into schools and out of the district center, Pascarella said.

"We have a moral imperative to ask for what we need to educate our children," Pascarella said, even though there are less funds for things like supplies, text books and technology infrastructure.

Taxpayer concerns

Superintendents still include things that will improve education, but the bottom line has gotten much finer, Richard Carmelich, president of the Connecticut Association of School Business Leaders and business director for Region 7 said.

"It's not sustainable even with a decrease in enrollment. The consumer price index for education is higher," Carmelich said. "From the taxpayer's standpoint, the 6 or 7 percent increase they saw 10 years ago was not sustainable either because some taxpayers say they can't cover the increase."

But, the rate of increase may be the future, he said.

"I think if you told most districts they will get 3 and half to 4 percent, a year they could say they could make do, but if they only get one percent they would be in trouble," Carmelich said. "There is no question that property tax as a means to fund education is not ideal."

Cirasuolo said that, in a lean budget year, increases in teacher salaries, insurance costs or transportation means cutting programs.

"Every district has to do what they think is appropriate," he said. "It's tough sledding for schools at a time when there are higher standards."

As districts struggle locally, there is work underway to expand state help to schools.

The group also proposes an eventual state take over of special education assessments and services, which now exceed $1.7 billion a year.

"Connecticut is one of the wealthiest states in the country," CCM spokesman Kevin Maloney said. "Our view is that the state partnership for education needs to be enhanced."; 203-731-3333