FAIRFIELD — The superintendent’s budget proposal for next fiscal year marks just over a 3 percent bump from this year’s budget. Now comes the debate.

Contributing to the rise include contracted salary increases, benefits costs and increased tuition bills, while savings include educational materials and utility spending. Enrollment, based on projections, is also expected to require more middle and high school teachers, but 13 fewer full-time equivalents at elementary schools.

The $168,757,490 proposal marks a 3.12 percent increase from the current school year’s budget. Over the past several years, the Board of Education has approved similar increases, generally cut down by the time they receive full town approval. Last fiscal year, the superintendent proposed a 2.59 percent increase which was eventually whittled down to a 1.52 percent hike.

Superintendent Toni Jones, who started in her role in early December, presented the proposal at Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting, kicking off the budgeting process for next fiscal year.

Projections foresee a decline in elementary school enrollment and rise at middle schools, partly because of a large fifth grade across the district moving up after the current school year. In the budget, the change translates as a decline of 13.2 full-time elementary school teaching needs, and a rise of 8.4 at middle schools.

More Information

Upcoming budget meetings

Jan. 12 at noon: Brown Bag Luncheon at district offices for discussion, question and answer session

Jan. 17: Special Board of Education meeting on budget

Jan. 24: Special Board of Education meeting on budget

Jan. 26: Budget adoption at regular Board of Education meeting

Thirteen elementary school sections would be cut: three at Stratfield, two each at Holland Hill, Jennings, and North Stratfield and one each at Dwight, Mill Hill, Osborn Hill and Riverfield. Actual enrollment could change as next school year approaches, and district policy notes that a class with 25 or fewer students is desirable.

“We are a large district with several elementaries, so we’re very hopeful that will happen through what we call natural attrition,” Jones said in an interview, “and that is retirements, people who are moving out of state or moving to another district.”

While there is no guarantee, Jones said, the district’s goal is to retain the teachers. The Fairfield Education Association will work with the central office to minimize the impact of the decrease in elementary school staff, according to FEA President Bob Smoler.

Among areas where the budget increased is a more than $400,000 rise in tuition costs, including special education and magnet tuition. Roughly half the increase occurred because the district will have to begin paying tuition for Fairchild Wheeler and Discovery Magnet Schools in Bridgeport for 73 students. Bridgeport gained state authorization to begin charging the tuition as of September, giving Fairfield its one year notice.

Special education costs are expected to be up nearly $1.5 million, attributed to tuition costs, student needs and staffing.

Two additional behavioral specialists are budgeted, doubling the district’s current staffing of the position. Jones said teachers have expressed needing more assistance with students that have behavioral challenges in the classroom. Behavioral specialists work across the district.

“We have two right now that are spread so thin,” Jones said. “It’s just not enough.”

Health insurance costs also went up, though a district assessment showed they would have gone up significantly more had it remained with a self-insured plan. The district adopted the CT Partnership Plan 2.0 last summer.

Several budgeted declines helped keep the budget down despite rising costs.

Costs are down over $850,000 from this year’s budget for instructional supplies and materials due to a hefty social studies textbook pre-purchase last spring and several other curricular program expenses spent this year.

Jones also identified a choice to wait on purchasing new texts and materials for science classes, pending new state standards expected in the next two years and more options hitting the market. While called for in the District Improvement Plan, the science material purchasing will be on hold, with a focus on enhancing inquiry-based science in the classroom, she said.

Instructional material for social studies and elementary scheduling changes are programmed the district plans to move and spend on next year, but at the recommendation of district administrators, the board will wait on rolling out an additional year — second grade — of its elementary school world language program. The change will mean some, though lower, spending in the 2017-2018 budget to review the program before moving forward.

Utilities are also budgeted about $400,000 lower for next year’s budget, in part thanks to solar panel installations and declines in energy use and rates.

Capital non-recurring projects for 2017-2018, considered separately, received board approval Tuesday night. Projects include a parking lot replacement at Fairfield Ludlowe High School, an HVAC unit, turf field and tennis court replacements at Fairfield Warde High School, partial replacement of Tomlinson Middle School’s roof and security infrastructure upgrades across all schools.

As the Board of Education works toward its final budget, concern lingers from state funding cuts. In recent education cost sharing grant reductions, Fairfield took a $570,798 cut mid-year. Fairfield’s ECS funding, which goes to the town, has declined in several cuts from over $3.5 million last school year.

The Town of Fairfield will absorb the most recent loss, Jones said, calling it a “tremendous” move.

“In the middle of the year you can’t really turn off the lights, you can’t not run the heat, you can’t not pay for your buses,” she said. “So many of the costs are fixed for school districts, so it’s a challenge.”

But Jones and school officials expect the ECS funding to stay at a reduced level or continue to shrink and anticipate the possibility of cuts in state special education cost sharing.

“We’re eyes wide open and working together as a town on the budget issue,” Jones said.

The Board of Education is scheduled to adopt its final proposed budget in two weeks.

Lweiss@hearstmediact.com; @LauraEWeiss16