Stamford Public Schools Finance Director Ryan Fealey has sounded an alarm for the Board of Education.
Fealey told members that, if the school district wants to keep 120 positions – teachers, para-educators, technology specialists, security guards and more – it will have to come up with almost $9 million by June 2024.
That’s when the COVID relief money the district got from the federal government to fund the positions runs out. To retain those jobs, the district will have to find “an alternative funding source,” Fealey told the members of the board’s Fiscal Committee at their August meeting.
Finding a source won’t be easy.
Fealey said many of the other grants the school district relies on for funding are not keeping pace with school employee wage and benefit increases. To make things worse, the district faces significantly increasing costs for employee health care, student transportation, and utilities, he said.
If the district covers those escalating costs and funds the 120 positions set to expire, the operating budget would increase $33 million over the next two years, Fealey said. That would be a hike of about 5.3 percent each year – more than twice the school budget’s usual annual increase, he said.
Then he addressed what likely will come – notifying taxpayers, again, that they have to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for it.
Fealey told school board members and others listening in on the virtual meeting that an annual operating budget of more than $300 million – it’s $360 million counting all grants – “may seem an exorbitant sum, but it’s important to look at the spending in context.”
He showed them a list of 22 towns in Fairfield County and how much each spends per pupil. Stamford was 15th.
“This suggests to me that the overall size of our budget is reasonable, assuming that we want to pay our staff, maintain our buildings, and educate our students as well as our peers” do, Fealey told the committee.
There is evidence of the reasonableness of Stamford’s school budget – the city is exactly on par with the state average for school spending, according to information from the Connecticut Department of Education.
But the definition of “peer” may be a sticking point.
Thirteen of the 14 Fairfield County municipalities listed as spending more per pupil than Stamford have little in common with Stamford. They are towns, not cities; they have many fewer students; their median household incomes are considerably higher; and their populations have far fewer people living in poverty.
The Town of Redding, for example, tops the list. Redding spends $26,979 for each of the 1,228 students in that district.
U.S. Census data indicates that Redding residents can cover the large expenditure. The median household income in Redding is $135,928, and a small number of residents, 3 percent, live in poverty. It means few students require free or reduced-price lunch and other services needed by children who come from families dealing with economic hardship.
The numbers are much different in Stamford, which spends $19,641 per pupil – about $7,000 less than Redding.
The Stamford school system has 15,733 students, nearly 13 times as many as Redding.
And the Stamford system is funded by taxpayers who earn less. The median household income in Stamford is $96,885, about $39,000 less than what the typical Redding household earns.
Moreover, the poverty rate in Stamford is 9.1 percent – more than triple what it is in Redding.
Other towns that top Stamford on the list – Greenwich, at $24,326 per pupil; Westport, at $23,348; and Darien, at $22,838 – have much in common with Redding.
Their tax bases are well-equipped to fund their school systems. The median household income in Westport, for instance, is $222,375, which is $125,000 more than the average Stamford household. In Darien, the household income is even higher than Westport – $243,750.
Most towns in Fairfield County have more money to spend on smaller numbers of students who need fewer of the services required by those dealing with financial struggle.
Though it’s difficult to compare Stamford to those towns, a comparison to other Connecticut cities is just as difficult.
The populations of Stamford and New Haven, for instance, are similar in size and makeup. But New Haven spends about $2,000 less per pupil. In that city, the median household income is $52,000 less than it is in Stamford, and the poverty rate is significantly higher, 25 percent.
The story is similar in Bridgeport, Hartford and Waterbury.
The only municipality on Fealey’s comparison list that comes close to resembling Stamford is Norwalk, which has 11,932 students, about 3,700 fewer than Stamford.
Norwalk’s median household income is $89,486, roughly $8,000 less than the typical Stamford household, and the poverty rate is identical, 9.1 percent.
Notably, the cities devote just about the same amount to educating their children – Norwalk spends $156 more per pupil than Stamford.
Fealey said Friday he included the spending comparison in his budget presentation to acknowledge that Stamford’s $304 million school budget “may seem like a massive figure,” but “the per pupil table suggests that it is largely a function of Stamford’s size and the structure of public education in Fairfield County.”
Fealey said the federal relief funds were intended “to help our students recover academically and emotionally from the pandemic,” and the school district used the money to fill 92 positions that were cut in the spring of 2020, when COVID began.
The funds “were intended to help us safely reopen schools, and the administration and the Board of Education were aware from the outset that adding positions could lead to a future ‘fiscal cliff,’” Fealey said. “This concept has been discussed extensively at meetings with all city boards over the past two years.”
School officials always intended to absorb the positions “into the operating budget over time, to whatever extent possible, given budgetary constraints. At this point, we have 21 months and two budget cycles to determine the best path forward before a potential ‘cliff,’” Fealey said.
After his budget presentation, Board of Education President Jackie Heftman asked Fealey to deliver it to elected city boards to prepare them for what’s coming. The Board of Finance in the spring cut $4 million from the current school budget. That was followed by a last-minute $2 million cut by the Board of Representatives, which Heftman sharply criticized.
City Rep. Megan Cottrell, chair of the Board of Representatives’ Education Committee, said Friday it’s difficult to weigh what students need against what taxpayers can afford.
“There are no easy answers,” Cottrell said. “Basically, though, my friends who are in the classroom have told me that the kids are not well, that last year was the hardest year that they’ve ever taught. The pandemic took a big toll on the mental health of kids and they need extra support.”