Declining student enrollment, shared staff and shortfalls in Regional School District 4’s reserves are expected to be significant topics of discussion as school boards of Chester, Essex, and Deep River craft five interconnected budgets for fiscal year 2020-21.
The district is anticipating a dramatic 5.2 percent drop in student enrollment heading into next year — but that doesn’t necessarily mean the district will be able to save costs as a result — Superintendent Brian White told the Supervision District Committee at a Wednesday night budget workshop.
As of October 1, 2019, the district had 1,610 students enrolled in kindergarten through grade 12. For 2020 to 2021, they’re projected to have 1,527, a decrease of 83 students.
Even though there are 25 fewer students in kindergarten through grade six, White explained, that decrease would have to occur in the same grade in the same school to allow the district to “create an efficiency.”
Although Region 4 has a single middle school, a single high school, and a regional school board serving all three towns, each of the three towns also retains their own elementary school and their own local board of education.
In recent budgeting, the district has made efforts to share professional staff between its five schools.
This is mostly seen in its Supervision District budget, which covers essential services that are shared between the local elementary schools of Chester, Essex, Deep River, as well as Region 4’s regional schools. That budget includes the costs of the superintendent, other high ranking administrators, student transportation, preschool, human resources, and elementary school arts teachers who move between schools.
Between fiscal years 2018-19 and 2019-20, the Supervision Distric budget grew by 13.2 percent — an increase driven largely by transferring library media specialists, physical education teachers, and IT network technicians out of the separate school boards budgets and into the shared Supervision District budget — to fund a gradual de facto regionalizing of the schools.
The Supervision District’s approved budget for the current fiscal year 2019-20 is $7,719,403.
Region 4’s system for sharing costs between five towns is unique in the state. The Supervision District budget is voted on by a Supervision Committee composed of members of the district’s four elected school boards. The Supervision budget is then split up into the budgets of the four school boards, based on student populations and use of services.
In fiscal year 2019-20, Region 4’s approved budget is $20,572,675. For the elementary schools in 2019-20, Chester’s budget is $4,868,977. Essex’s budget is $7,463,976. Deep River’s budget is $5,246,280.
“This is a model that allows us to share services across schools in a way that’s cost efficient for the district,” White explained at Wednesday’s meeting. “Those resources are shared across all of our school boards and three towns so everybody benefits.”
White explained at the meeting Wednesday night that moving the network technicians into the Supervision budget made it possible to reduce the total number of network technicians from five to four. He said that the reduction in staff has worked well as far as he can tell.
“Anecdotally, we’ve heard that it’s been okay in part because we have the flexibility to move those people from different schools so there’s no gap felt in any one school,” White said.
However, some Supervision Committee members said that this same arrangement of moving costs from one school board budget to another can make it more complex to track expenses because the costs can shift between five different budgets.
Supervision District Committee member John Stack asked White to prepare materials to help the boards explain this budget process to the public.
“The problem is the moment you start trying to explain this is it’s the moment people start to think you’re trying to hide something,” Stack said, “because it’s so convoluted.”
Stack added later that he would like for school staff to provide documents during the budget process to show “ a clean apples for apples comparison.”
Because most of the costs of shared services go into hiring staff, the Supervision District budget is dominated by salaries and benefits for employees, which are generally determined by contracts with employees for years at a time. In fiscal year 2019-20, 82 percent of the Supervision District’s costs were for salaries.
That cost is budgeted at $6,297,138 in fiscal year 2019-20, and White said that if staffing remains the same, under current contracts that compensation is expected to increase by 2.2 percent to $6,436,161 in fiscal year 2020-21.
Looking more broadly at the entire school district, White said that this year’s budgets will also be driven by shorfalls in Region 4’s capital reserve fund. Fiscal year 2017-18 showed a deficit, and White said that the district anticipates another potential deficit will be revealed in the 2018-19 audit.
“So that is an area we’ll have to address in the Region 4 budget,” he said, “and we’ll also have to be thoughtful about how we establish a reserve for that fund, which is also going to be a cost driver in Region 4.”
Region 4’s health insurance fund reserve is also lower than recommended, White said.
“We’re going to have to be thoughtful about our three towns as to how we are going to build up that insurance reserve fund to a healthy level. So that will be a significant driver for Region 4 and our other districts as well.”
Residents voice early concerns
Even early in the budget process, members of the public expressed concern about the expected cost of the schools budget.
“We really have to get this budget under better control because the numbers are just getting too hard for the towns to bear,” said Lori Guertte, a member of Deep River’s Board of Finance. “We’ve got roads that need to be paved. We’ve got fire trucks that need purchasing. There are other things that are just as important to the town as our students.”
Susan Wright, chair of the Chester Economic Development Commission, said similarly that the school district should try to avoid budget increases.
“I know it’s not easy,” Wright said. “But it’s something to strive for.”