School board OKs $168m budget
FAIRFIELD — An initial $168.7 million recommended education budget is moving on to further town scrutiny after getting the school board’s approval.
After debating but dropping several alterations, the Board of Education passed the superintendent’s proposed 2017-18 budget, a $168,757,490 recommendation on Jan. 26.
Many board members called it a “lean” budget, some noting riskier planning for staffing expenses. But many commended the tight budgeting of Superintendent Toni Jones, new to the post. She took over in the midst of the budgeting process in early December.
The budget marks a 3.12 percent increase from the current school budget. That budget passed the Board of Education as proposed by the superintendent, though cuts came later as the spending plan moved through other town bodies.
During the board meeting, before budget approval, Chairman Philip Dwyer raised the idea of adding a chunk of contingency funding to the budget, concerned if fewer staff than the high projections retire and enrollment expectations are slightly off that staff spending could quickly throw off the budget come fall.
Dwyer said if the budget passes through the town as is or trimmer, he worries the district could be in trouble with its budgeting within the first quarter of next fiscal year.
Contingency would work “simply to give us some flexibility in what we know will be a tight year,” he said.
But with a clear lack of support from other board members, Dwyer chose not to formally propose the addition. Several members expressed a belief it would be futile to add, citing the current economic climate. Vice Chairman Anthony Calabrese said the allocation would have a “big bull’s-eye on it” as soon as other town bodies looked at the budget.
But his thinking in line with Dwyer’s, board member Marc Patten made a motion to add $225,000 to funding for teaching staff, which would create three additional positions for “on the bubble” grade levels. Five classrooms are considered “on the bubble,” meaning a grade level at an elementary school would need an additional class section if another student or two enrolled.
Patten’s motion died for lack of a second. Dwyer said he would support it, but felt it would be a waste of time gauging no other members agreed.
After the failed efforts to add some wiggle room, a board member proposed re-allocating funds within the budget to fund an assessment of the district’s special education program and its literacy program. The just over $50,000 reallocation would have funded a consulting firm to carry out the work.
Board member John Llewellyn eventually withdrew the motion and Jones committed to moving forward to propose and work toward an audit that would be useful for the staff. Consulting work is generally contracted by the superintendent.
Llewellyn said special education funding has undergone a “rather stiff” increase in recent years and hopes to have the most effective and efficient methods for the spending. But not all members took warmly to the proposal.
“I have faith in our administration that they’ve done a very good job presenting a budget to us,” member Trisha Pytko said, adding staff thought carefully about presenting the best way to spend funds. “I almost take this as an insult to them, and frankly, if I was a parent watching, I would be deeply upset.”
Had the motion passed — which was unlikely — the cuts for re-allocation would have impacted a maintenance project and, partially, a purchase of document cameras for elementary school classrooms.
The Board of Selectmen has already reviewed the Board of Education’s capital nonrecurring projects for 2017-18 — approved separately from the budget — and eliminated a $250,000 project to replace Fairfield Ludlowe High School’s student parking lot. The selectmen are expected to vote on the operating budget in March. Between then and now the school board will review the budget with the finance board and selectmen.