The Stamford Board of Education passed a $314.8 million school budget Thursday after adding nearly $1 million more than the superintendent requested.
With that, the school board sent the budget on to the Board of Finance, which usually makes cuts. The budget then goes to the Board of Representatives, which usually chops it more.
The total for the 2023-24 school year at this point is 4.3 percent more than the current budget, a sizable increase that may prompt finance board members and city representatives to make more trims.
Part of the reason is that the school district faces a “fiscal cliff” – a looming $8.8 million deficit created when the superintendent’s office used COVID-19 relief funds to pay for 120 jobs. The funding runs out next year. If school officials want to keep the jobs, they will have to find the money.
But the Board of Education Thursday made only a handful of changes to the budget proposed by Superintendent Tamu Lucero.
Most of the money they added, nearly $1.1 million, would pay for revised estimates received from the city budget office. The estimates are for the cost of health insurance for city employees who work for the Board of Education, workers’ compensation, general liability and property coverage, and other insurance, said Ryan Fealey, chief financial officer for the school district.
The city provided preliminary estimates in December but recently revised them higher, Fealey said.
‘Astonishing and unacceptable’
Other votes by school board members resulted in two cuts that totaled $155,000.
One trimmed $60,000 from funds for caps and gowns for graduating high school seniors, and the other eliminated $95,000 for an executive secretary reporting to Lucero. The job is empty. School board members cut the salary but left the position intact in case there is a need to fill it in the future.
School board members voted to add a small amount, $6,900, to pay the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education to help Stamford school officials review policies. Nearly three-quarters of the hundreds of district policies – which cover student attendance, bullying, minority teacher recruitment, teacher evaluations, weight of grades, an ethics code for board members, and much more – need updating.
Other motions to amend the operating budget failed. As is, the budget will cover the 2,068 positions requested by Lucero. Another 394 positions will be covered by $51.7 million in grants.
The budget discussion was preceded by a public hearing. Parents Dina Begetis and Stephanie Edmonds cited state statistics showing that the Stamford Board of Education spends $19,625 per pupil but only 32 percent of students are proficient in math and 43 percent in reading.
“That is astonishing and unacceptable,” Begetis said. “We are throwing more money into a system that is broken. This meeting should be focused on holding people accountable … how do we get out of this mess?”
Edmonds said she cited the statistics in a recent meeting with Central Office administrators and “they looked at me as if I’m a bad person for reminding them of the numbers … but that is the core of our mission and we are failing. Where is the data showing what we are getting for our money? I demand an audit.”
Reasons for yes’s and no’s
Later in the meeting school board members passed the budget, 7-2. One of the “no” votes was Josh Esses, chair of the board’s Fiscal Committee.
Esses said he rejected the budget because he believes that if the school board made its own cuts, finance board members and city representatives might let up on their cuts.
“District leadership ran a thorough, informative budget process. My colleagues largely declined to sharpen their pencils on making changes now, opting instead to wait for cuts from the other boards and to make some hard decisions then,” Esses said. “I want the Board of Education to do more work up front.”
Fritz Chery, the board secretary, said he voted “yes” on the budget based on an opposite tact.
“I am in the camp of individuals who think it makes no sense to continue to cut when you believe that will happen on the other boards,” Chery said.
After the Board of Finance and Board of Representatives approve the school budget, it returns to the Board of Education for final adjustments.
That’s when the school board digs into the budget, said member Jackie Pioli, who, like Chery, voted to pass it.
“I support the dollar amount of the budget, and I know we will go through scrutiny with the Board of Finance and the Board of Representatives,” Pioli said. “But the bigger work will have to be done when we get the budget back, especially with the fiscal cliff the following year.”
School board members have their eye on a bill now before the state House of Representatives. It would fully fund the Education Cost Sharing program, which distributes funds to school districts. If the bill becomes law, Stamford will get $7.5 million in 2024-25, bringing it most of the way back from the edge of the fiscal cliff.
Pioli said the district appears to have $859,173 coming from the state for the 2023-24 budget.
“It’s on the tuition line,” she said. “It’s reimbursement for excess costs for outplacement of special education students.”
‘Open up the wound’
The reimbursement is one more thing to watch as the school budget wends its way through the Board of Finance and Board of Representatives, which will return suggestions along with their likely reductions.
“They can give us examples of what to cut, but then … we as a school board look at the dollar amount and look at their recommendations, and it’s up to us and the administration to say, ‘This is where we think the money will best be used,’” Pioli said.
Chery said that’s when he will pick up his fight to fund music and the arts, and to protect a year-old career pathways program for students who don’t plan to go to college. He also will focus on fulfilling a growing post-COVID interest among middle-schoolers for sports and band, Chery said.
“It’s about reallocating funds for middle school, so high school is not their first time being exposed to these things,” Chery said. “Things like sports and marching band and drama club help to improve mental health for young people because they can be a good outlet and source of support.”
Another school board member, Rebecca Hamman, chair of the Policy Committee, said her focus is on improving three things.
“We need to share data so we know what’s going on school by school. We need a clear plan for building a written curriculum. And we need accountability for top administrators,” Hamman said. “I’m not going to vote for a budget that does not support those things.”
In voting “no,” Hamman reiterated the concerns of the parents who called into the virtual meeting.
“The proficiency rate for math in Stamford is 32 percent, so how many students are failing? We have a 43 percent success rate in reading, so almost 60 percent are not succeeding. It breaks your heart,” Hamman said. “I want to see how the students are progressing. We need to look at data – open up the wound and look at it so we can fix it.”