DANBURY — School districts statewide are asking for substantial budget hikes next year as the federal funds that buoyed them during the pandemic won’t be available. Stamford is requesting a 6.4 percent increase, Groton has asked for an 8.27 percent bump and Westport wants nearly 9 percent. But Danbury has surpassed them all with its request for an additional $29 million — nearly 20 percent more than it received last year, for a total of $178.9 million.
Superintendent Kevin Walton told the Board of Education earlier this month that Danbury was different from nearly every other district in Connecticut, since its student population was increasing. The district’s population rose from 11,483 in the 2017-18 school year to 12,205 this year, and expects nearly 200 more students this fall.
“We continue to experience growing enrollment here in Danbury Public Schools, while the vast majority of the districts across the state of Connecticut are experiencing flat or declining enrollment,” he said.
The increases in English language learners, special education students and the population overall accounts for a large chunk of the $7.6 million the district is requesting for new positions and programs. Nearly $2 million is earmarked for 14 new positions at the high school, additional bus routes and tents where students can eat lunch. The district’s Chief Financial Officer John Spang said the high school is so full that there isn’t room in the cafeteria for all the students to eat lunch.
“With 3,900 students, we just can’t get them through the cafeteria in four waves,” he said.
The district has also requested 66 new paraeducators and 14 bilingual teachers, paraeducators and coaches across the district.
An additional cost will be the transition to the Danbury Career Academy building, which Spang said will be ready for occupancy by April 2025. About $600,000 would go toward moving costs and site supervisors for the building.
But the biggest reason for the budget hike remains the need to fill a $10.5 million hole left behind by the expiration of federal pandemic money. About $8.3 million of the school district’s requested increase would fund staff salaries and benefits, with another $2.4 million for substitutes and staff to manage the overpopulation at the high school.
Walton also noted that Danbury was scheduled to receive a $12 million increase in its Alliance Grant — part of the district’s state Education Cost Sharing grant — in the next two years.
“Great for Danbury, we need it. The money should have been here yesterday,” he said.
Walton explained that Danbury had one of the lowest per-pupil spending rates among similar districts in the state — about $16,000 per student. Comparatively, Stamford spends $21,400 per student and Norwalk spends $21,600 per student. Despite this, he said, all three districts scored similarly on the state’s Accountability Index, which gives districts a ranking based on test scores, academic growth, graduation and post-secondary preparation, absenteeism and access to the arts.
Norwalk, which has about 500 fewer students than Danbury, has a budget of $226 million.
“We cannot continue to count on our staff to continue to carry the burden that is in front of us,” Walton told the Board of Education at a Jan. 17 meeting. “For years, we have continued to enjoy diversified administrators in our staff across the district, to continue to be applauded for the growth that our kids continue to exhibit, and those are the outcomes that we look at every year. But times are different in the district — not just in Danbury, of course — it’s in all districts. But the other districts have resources that we do not.”
Walton pointed out that the city had consistently given the district less than the Board of Education requested.
Francesca Capodilupo, Danbury Mayor Roberto Alves’ communications advisor, told CT Examiner in a statement that Alves planned to work with the school board and state to address the historic shortfall in education funding.
“The mayor is keenly aware that past administrations have underfunded education in Danbury for well over a decade. Unlike those administrations, rather than employ disingenuous tactics, the mayor’s only interest is to get out of this hole responsibly, and in a manner transparent to Danbury taxpayers,” Capodilupo said. “Every student in Danbury deserves a quality education in adequate working spaces with sufficient resources. While this can’t be solved overnight, the administration is working with stakeholders from the Board of Education and the state to address these challenges.”