The push and pull of budget season is on.
The spending plan for the most costly department the city funds – education – was the first presented to the six members of the Board of Finance, who control the purse strings.
School administrators Monday night made their request for $314.5 million to operate the school system in 2023-24. That’s an increase of $12.6 million, or nearly 4.2 percent more than this year.
Board of Finance members have said they must balance budget requests against the pressures on Stamford taxpayers, who foot 92 percent of the bill for running the city and school district.
Residents are feeling the persistent effects of economic inflation, skyrocketing apartment rentals, and property taxes set to jump July 1 as a result of a state-mandated revaluation fueled by high demand for houses during the COVID-19 pandemic, Board of Finance members have said.
The school district’s finance director, Ryan Fealey, made his case for Superintendent Tamu Lucero’s proposed budget during the virtual meeting.
All Board of Education departments “were tasked with examining every line item under their control” and looked for “efficiencies and discrepancies,” Fealey said. The resulting budget proposal maintains programming, reduces the overall number of full-time positions, and adds “no new programs that materially increase” costs, Fealey said.
The requested increase of almost 4.2 percent “might seem like a high figure for a year-over-year budget that does not add people or programs, but as you all know we are in the midst of an economic environment where costs are rising,” Fealey said. “Certain of our accounts – especially health care, out-of-district special education tuition, and energy costs – are particularly affected.”
He provided historical data showing that budget increases, after Board of Finance and Board of Education cuts, ended up at 2.8 percent for each of the previous two years; .9 percent in 2020-21; and just under 3.8 percent in 2019-20, which was the highest amount in the last decade.
Like many school districts that received money from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund during the pandemic, Stamford faces a “fiscal cliff,” Fealey said.
Stamford, like other school districts in Connecticut, used the money to fund positions. Stamford did it in such a way that the money runs out July 1 of next year, which will be its “fiscal cliff.” That’s the point at which the city will have to pay the salaries to keep the positions filled.
Other cities did things differently, Fealey said. Though the 4.2 percent requested hike is higher than usual, situations in other cities illustrate that the Stamford Board of Education has presented a responsible budget, Fealey said.
Norwalk, for example, “will have used all their ESSER funds by the end of this school year, so their fiscal year comes this July,” Fealey said. “As a result, the Norwalk Board of Education passed a budget with a 12.7 percent increase.”
According to information from the Norwalk Board of Education, Superintendent Alexandra Estrella’s request for $245.5 million, a 12.7 percent increase, “takes into account several pressing needs that have resulted from the pandemic and the current economic climate. With this budget, we intend to maintain our programs and retain the staff that our students and families have come to rely on.”
Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling recommended a much smaller increase, 4 percent. That amount will not allow the district to retain school counselors and social workers who “serve as our first responders in addressing students’ mental health concerns and behavioral problems,” according to the Norwalk school board.
The smaller increase also will not allow the Norwalk district to retain math and reading improvement teachers who “address the learning loss that occurred during the pandemic,” or cover the rising costs of special education, according to the school board.
The Norwalk education spending plan now faces the city’s budget-setting body, the Board of Estimate and Taxation, and its legislative branch, the Common Council.
Like Fealey, Stamford Board of Education Vice President Andy George raised comparisons to other school districts during Monday’s meeting.
“The numbers that a lot of Boards of Education are requesting are far higher than what our board is asking – it’s been more in the 7 percent to 8 percent request area – with some going as high, like Norwalk, where you’re getting double-digits,” George said. “I’ve only heard of two other districts asking for less than 4 percent … the cost increases are affecting everybody.”
Stamford administrators want to add money to the 2023-24 budget to address a recent audit that found that 80 percent of classes have no written curriculum, resulting in teacher frustration, inefficiency, instructional inconsistency, and inadequate student assessment.
Administrators are seeking $944,000 to pay for two assistant directors of curriculum, teacher participation on curriculum committees, and books, software and professional development.
The four biggest requests in the budget include $187.7 million for wages and salaries – that’s $4.7 million than this year. There is a $46.2 million request for transportation and out-of-district tuition for students with special needs, an increase of $2.7 million. There is a $9.8 million request for supplies, materials and heating fuel, which is $1.8 million more than this year. And $49.3 million for employee benefits, a $1.2 million jump over this year.
Among other things, Lucero’s budget will save money by cutting 15 paraeducators, teacher assistants who are among the lowest-paid Board of Education employees. School districts in many areas are having trouble finding people to take paraeducator jobs, particularly those who work with special education students.
“We thought, ‘Why put them in the budget if we can’t hire them?’” Lucero said.
The district will see whether a new paraeducator contract offering better pay will attract employees by next year, when the district may be able to fill the needed special education slots, Lucero said.
Six paraeducator kindergarten slots are not needed, Fealey said, because there has been a significant decline in elementary school enrollment.
That’s something to look at further, Finance Board Chair Richard Freedman said.
“Enrollment is down 600 from the peak. That’s an entire elementary school,” Freedman said.
He wondered how that may affect an enormous long-term capital budget item – Stamford’s $1.5 billion plan for rebuilding or repairing aging school buildings.
“If this is an ongoing trend, it could complicate our capital program,” Freedman said. “The capital program will unspool over 20 years. We may have to revise our starting assumptions.”
The school board’s capital budget request for 2023-24 is $46 million with about $12 million in state aid or energy efficiency rebates for upgrading old equipment, school officials said. The schools that need the most work are Stamford High, $16.9 million; Julia Stark Elementary, $12.8 million; and Springdale Elementary, $6.3 million.