Fairfield schools consider Open Choice, cuts, to close $2M budget hole

Photo of Katrina Koerting
A file photo of the Fairfield Warde High School on Melville Avenue in Fairfield, Conn.

A file photo of the Fairfield Warde High School on Melville Avenue in Fairfield, Conn.

Contributed Photo

FAIRFIELD — School officials are looking to close a $2 million budget hole left after the Representative Town Meeting passed the 2021-22 budget without the funding the district said it needed.

Cutting positions, revised health insurance numbers and increasing the number of students accepted through the Open Choice program were all proposed at this week’s school board meeting, though the actual vote on the cuts will happen later this month.

The Board of Education had adopted a $193.4 million budget, but First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick brought that number down to $192.1 million, which is about $7.5 million more than the current year.

That figure held throughout the budget process, despite requests from residents and school officials to restore money the schools requested.

The school board debated removing a central office secretary and three high school positions, saying all but 0.2 of the full-time employee positions will be covered through attrition. The change is expected to save $364,000.

“This is very promising and the first step to more work down this road,” said Nick Aysseh, the board’s vice chairman, at the meeting.

Superintendent Mike Cummings said the secretary position could be absorbed by other office staff and a possible restructuring. He said the high school positions were determined based on enrollment.

“Comfortable class sizes will still be comfortable,” Cummings said, adding specific classes won’t be cut, just sections.

Bids coming back better than budgeted also created nearly $350,000 in savings, the board was told. Officials also said they plan to use a federal grant to cover $300,000 set aside for COVID personal protective equipment, taking that out of the operating expense budget line. It’s still unclear what the health insurance savings will be, the board was told.

The most divisive point during the debate focused on the board’s decision on how many additional students from Bridgeport should be accepted to the state’s Open Choice program. The program is a revenue generator for Fairfield schools.

Board members were split on whether they should add students and by how many, largely because of an expected increase in the needs of the district’s current students coming off the pandemic. The board as a whole supported the program, but questioned if 2021-22 was the year to increase the number of students.

Under the program, urban students can attend public schools in nearby suburban and rural towns and vice versa. Districts are reimbursed by the state. The program currently includes Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven and their surrounding districts, with Norwalk and Danbury starting the program in 2022-23.

Fairfield is currently budgeted for 74 students from Bridgeport.

The board is now considering increasing that by adding 26 students next year to bring the enrollment to about 100 students, which is what the district was set to reach a few years ago, according to its state-approved racial imbalance plan.

The other proposal from the superintendent is to add an additional 37 students next year. This would cross the 50 percent increase incentive set by the state, allowing the reimbursement for each student to jump to $6,000 for the year instead of the current — and usual — $3,000.

Aysseh introduced a third option of phasing in the increase by adding 15 students each year over two years for a total increase of 30 students and hitting the 100 student goal set out in the plan.

“I do think that we can serve kids and fulfill the mission of the program, but we need to do it in a smart, efficient, fiscally responsible way while looking at the needs of our students coming out of a pandemic so we can serve each and every student appropriately,” he said.

He also said the $6,000 reimbursement could create a fiscal cliff since it’s just one-time money before reverting back to $3,000.

Board chairman Christine Vitale said the district could handle the extra students, since they would be spread out across the district.

“It benefits all students, regardless of what their home address might be,” she said, touting the advantages the program offers both Fairfield and Bridgeport students.

Board member Trisha Pytko said she understands the importance of the program, having gone from Bridgeport to Fairfield schools herself, but said the board can’t justify bringing in more students from out of district when the reduced budget means cutting some arts offerings and the math academy. Both cuts were part of the district’s proposed spending plan.

There isn’t an official proposal to reinstate the math academy yet, though several parents spoke at the beginning of the meeting, asking the board to do so.

Laura Horne said her fourth grader is in the academy now, calling it “nothing short of transformative.” She said her son’s needs weren’t being met in his home school but were in the program.

“He’s thriving,” she said.

Board Member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly said she understood the idea of ending the math academy and bringing it into the elementary schools at large but argued this wasn’t the year to do that with all of the other challenges the math department is facing because of the pandemic.

“I don’t think we will have anything adequate in September and in my opinion that is wrong,” she said.

The only increase to the budget included in the superintendent’s proposal this week was an additional $100,000 for special education evaluations.

Robert Mancusi, the district’s special education and student services director, said they’re seeing a need for more evaluations because of the pandemic, especially in literacy and psychological evaluations. He said costs for those services can range from $2,500 to $10,000 based on the type of evaluation and the student’s needs.

“We are being challenged this year,” he said, adding he expects such challenges to continue next school year.