Schools anxious over state budget
Published 12:00 am, Sunday, August 13, 2017
Were it a typical summer, educators in Fairfield would be rewriting curriculum and paving school parking lots.
Shelton administrators wouldn’t be putting things like sports and arts on worse-case scenario lists.
Bridgeport, already used to having millions worth of programs on the chopping block, would not be viewing that as a best case scenario.
A typical summer it is not.
With no state budget in place, and $506 million slashed from the state’s primary grant to education in the Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s so-called “mini budget,” school superintendents in the region are approaching the 2017-18 school years with a fair amount of uncertainty and anxiety.
It has districts like Torrington pushing back the starting day of school from Aug. 30 to after Labor Day. Others are putting off new hires, laying off staff and trying to figure out how to make payroll in the fall without a reliable cash flow.
“Across the entire state, everyone is in the same boat that we’ve been in or several years,” Bridgeport Schools Superintendent Aresta Johnson said. “It’s just unfortunate.”
The mini-budget, put into law through executive order on June 30, 2017, would strip districts like Fairfield, Milford, Monroe, Shelton and Trumbull of all their Education Cost Sharing funding. Bridgeport, Seymour and Stratford stand to lose millions.
What school funding looks like under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s “mini budget.”
Unless the state passes a budget, this is how Education Cost Sharing funds might look under Malloy’s June 30, 2017 executive order — unless he does what he has hinted and shuffles the deck in favor of the state’s neediest school district.
That may not be all. Without a new fiscal budget, Malloy announced last week he is prepared to reshuffle the distribution in favor of the state’s 30 lowest performing districts which also happen to be the ones in most need.
With no true funding formula in place, Malloy said it would at least honor the constitutional requirement in terms of funding.
Others say it just adds to the uncertainty.
Not business as usual
“We have a (town budget) revenue that was based on getting $4.9 million from the state,” Trumbull Board of Finance Chair Elaine A. Hammers, said this week. “Anyone want to take bets about whether we will see that $4.9 million?”
Not only is Trumbull zeroed out for school funding, Hammers remains fearful the town will be asked to contribute toward teacher pension costs. Even so, the finance panel voted this week to give its school board $1.4 million so it could start the school year without laying off teachers.
“I worry where we are going to get the money from,” Hammers said.
In Fairfield, another town zeroed out of the state’s budget for education spending Schools Superintendent Toni Jones said she refuses to worry until a budget actually gets passed.
Fairfield has a $168.5 million operating budget and last year received an Educational Cost Sharing Grant of just over $1 million. In the new plan it gets nothing under ECS. Fairfield property taxes would have to pick up the full load.
“To think that Fairfield would get zero is a little scary,” Jones said. “On the town side of the budget it’s a challenge.”
Jones is also worried about other grants the district gets from the state for special education and transportation — about $5 million worth. If those disappear, the district will have to revisit a contingency plan built last spring that already froze $2.1 million worth of budget items.
Very little went on this summer in the way of routine maintenance projects, curriculum work or staff training. Two high school positions were cut and a central office position is going unfilled.
“We have to make sure we are focused on necessities not wants,” Jones said.
Not good for kids
Shelton is taking a similar path, with the district’s central office cabinet meeting weekly to map out contingency plans and working closely with the city as the new school year approaches.
The city approved a $72 million budget for the school district in May but now faces the possibility of losing the $5.9 million it gets from the state in ECS funding.
“It’s just not good for the children of the State of Connecticut,” Shelton Schools Superintendent Chris Clouet said of state’s fiscal mess.
With no clear indication what Shelton will end up with, the district is looking for savings in the areas of energy consumption and transportation, but as of yet has not cut any programs.
“What we have is what we need,” Clouet said. “There is no fluff.”
A huge hit, Clouet said, could eventually impact things taken for granted, like sports and arts.
In Milford, Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Feser said the governor’s budget would be severely damaging to both the city and school system.
Scenarios have been developed, nearly all of which hold the potential for a devastating effect on the education of students.
“Like all school districts throughout the state, we are hopeful that the legislature - both parties - will come to agreement with the governor’s office on a budget that does not attempt to solve the State’s financial woes on the backs of the cities, towns and school districts,” Feser said.
Johnson, whose district is responsible for 21,000 students, started the 2017-18 fiscal year planning process in need of $11.5 million above the district’s $244 million operating budget just to keep up with inflation.
Instead, the governor’s current plan gives it $11.4 million less than the $181 million it gets in ECS funding. A full three quarters of the district funding comes from the state.
“We are coming up with something very similar to what other districts are doing,” Johnson said. “Contingency plans. A plan A, B, and C.”
The first order of business will be to visit a budget gap plan created last winter to cut literacy and math coaches, school attendance officers, parent center staffing and in-school suspension officers. The list also includes a reduction in school nurses, and elimination of the an alternative high school program called the Career and Craftsmanship School.
With school starting August 31, Johnson said she knows there is not much time.
“We are looking at next week to make a drop-dead action time line,” she said.
What might have to go beyond that, Johnson just doesn’t know. She doesn’t want to close schools.
“It is not part of the conversation today, but to be quite frank, we do not know what will happen with the state budget,” Johnson said. “The level of uncertainty, it’s just an unnerving time. It really is.”