STAMFORD – In developing the 2024-25 school budget, the superintendent’s office determined that it would take nearly $31 million more to provide everything the district needs.
Recognizing that would be a big request – a 10 percent increase over this year’s budget – school administrators instead asked for just over $20 million more.
Even that hike, 6.4 percent, would be historic, administrators acknowledge.
But, as budget season gets under way, that is what they are asking of the Board of Education.
Administrators want to increase the school budget from $313.6 million to $333.7 million.
“We know the reality of the situation we are in,” Superintendent Tamu Lucero said this week in presenting the budget to the Board of Education’s Fiscal Committee. “We want to make sure we are putting in a budget that represents what we think we need [to remain] an effective school district,” and any further cuts “will do harm.”
If approved by the Board of Education, and then the Board of Finance and Board of Representatives, the 6.4 percent budget increase would come on the heels of last year’s 3.9 percent hike, which was the largest in a decade.
But understanding the school district’s need for funds requires looking back farther than last year, Chief Financial Officer Ryan Fealey told CT Examiner before the committee meeting.
The end of the COVID grant
In the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, city officials were concerned that taxpayers would not be able to meet their bills because of the economic downturn. They gave the school district a small increase of .9 percent, which was $12.5 million less than the superintendent wanted.
But the district was able to preserve programs and jobs using federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds.
That funding, $9.3 million, expires June 30. It represents nearly 3 percent of the 6.4 percent increase the superintendent has requested, Fealey said.
“The school district has been able to delay the effect of the 2020 budget cuts until this year, using the federal grants,” he said.
The district used the ESSER funds to cover 123 positions. Of those, 111 now are included in Lucero’s budget. The remaining 12 were temporary positions, Fealey said.
Besides the loss of the federal grant money – and some state funding that has not kept pace with expenses – the district must cover increasing costs for employee health care, transportation, insurance, and special education, Fealey said.
Other school districts are facing the same rising costs and loss of federal and state grants, so they, too, are requesting large budget increases for 2024-25, he said.
According to Fealey’s research published in the budget book, the Danbury district is asking for a whopping 17.5 percent increase. Other large requests in the area so far include Westport at 8.8 percent and Norwalk at 8.2 percent. New Canaan, Darien and Meriden have requested increases similar to Stamford’s. According to Fealey’s data, Greenwich so far has asked for the smallest increase, 5.6 percent.
But asking is not getting.
Budget has long way to go
In Stamford, the Board of Education may increase or decrease the superintendent’s budget, or approve it as is.
That version then goes to the Board of Finance, which may only decrease or approve it. The same is true for the Board of Representatives.
Fealey said the district typically gets an increase of about 2.6 percent – far off from this year’s request for 6.4 percent.
“If our request is reduced to what we historically get, the reduction will exceed $10 million,” he told school board members. “Since three-quarters of the budget is wages and benefits, it’s likely that any reduction like that will result in cutting positions.”
Because of that, school administrators took an “unprecedented” step, Fealey said. They listed in the budget what may happen if the district has to cut $10 million. The list includes reducing the number of kindergarten paraprofessionals; parent facilitators; security staff; office support staff; Central Office administrators; deans and department heads. It also may include eliminating elementary music classes, and limiting high school elective courses.
“We want elected officials and the public to fully understand what is at stake,” Fealey said.
Under the superintendent’s budget, 44 teacher positions were eliminated, 20 in elementary schools and 24 in high schools.
About 11 kindergarten classes will be eliminated because of a new state law that requires that, in order to start school, students must turn 5 before Sept. 1, replacing the old cut-off date of Jan. 1. That will cut this year’s projected enrollment of 400 kindergarteners in half, Fealey said.
But the budget also adds jobs, Fealey said.
There will be four more positions at Westover elementary because the school is adding sixth grade this year, he said, and five special education positions have been added along with two speech pathologists and one school psychologist.
So, in the end, 32 positions will be eliminated. But, with retirements, resignations and reassignments, likely no people, Fealey said.
Enrollment down, costs up
Fealey said the reduction in the number of high school teacher positions will result from a number of “efficiencies,” including increasing the maximum enrollment in elective classes; combining classes that teach the same subject; and offering low-enrollment classes every other year instead of annually.
That reduction has nothing to do with a standing proposal by Lucero to have high school teachers take on a sixth class. Administrators are still in talks with the teachers’ union about the proposal, so it was excluded from the budget, Fealey said. Until they reach an agreement, he cannot say how much money the proposal would save, he said.
“There are several variables about how it might be enacted,” Fealey said.
Beyond kindergarten, some elementary teacher positions are being cut because of declining enrollment, he said.
Statistics in the city’s 2022 Annual Comprehensive Financial Report that date to 2013 show that enrollment in Stamford Public Schools has been flat during that time, with an average of about 16,150 students each year.
Yet, in 2022, the school system had the highest number of full-time equivalents that decade, 2,371 – twice the number as the city side. Full-time equivalent refers to hours worked rather than number of employees.
Why does the school district have 272 more full-time equivalents than a decade ago when student enrollment is virtually unchanged?
“While total enrollment may be flat, enrollment in special education and English language learner classes has increased,” Fealey said. “Those students need more resources, which drives the increase in staffing and costs.”
The number of security guards and parent facilitators, who help families navigate the school system, has also increased, he said.
Fealey said school administrators understand the pressures on taxpayers this year, when the second phase of a property revaluation and adding to the school building fund will raise the tax rate.
But school budget increases have hardly kept up with inflation, he said.
“I think it’s the responsibility of the Board of Education to ask for the money that it thinks is needed to provide the education we want to provide in Stamford,” Fealey said. “We understand that the city has other financial obligations, which is why the Board of Finance and Board of Representatives go through the process of evaluating what the city can afford.”