Stamford schools budget proposal seeking $275 million seen as conservative increase over last year
STAMFORD — It’s not often that school board or city hall budget increases come in under 2 percent.
But Schools Superintendent Earl Kim managed to do the not-quite-impossible last month when he presented the Board of Education with a draft operating budget up only 1.48 percent.
The increase was considered so conservative that board members asked him to beef it up by nearly $1 million, notching the increase to 1.83 percent. Satisfied, they voted Tuesday to send it to the Board of Finance — where it usually sustains a round of cuts — at around $274.7 million.
“While we appreciate when there’s fiscal discipline, we felt the number might be a little tight and we wanted to express our commitment to try and wrest the maximum amount of funding for our schools,” school board president David Mannis said.
In recent years, the board has requested increases as high as 5 percent. City legislators last year approved a 2.2 percent increase in the school operating budget.
“This is a pretty conservative request,” Mannis said. “It’s exceptional in our history and in relation to other school districts.”
The biggest drivers of any municipal budget are salaries and benefits. Kim and school board members said the low increase was largely because of a new employment agreement with teachers that moved them from a private insurance plan to the state’s, providing savings for both teachers and taxpayers.
The state plan, which had not previously been available to teachers, could become more expensive as more districts join, Kim said. But for this year at least, the change has provided some relief in an uncertain economic climate.
“The local conditions as well as the federal conditions presented a case for restraint,” Kim said. “I’m hopeful that next year will be different, but I expect that soon after we’ll be back in restraint mode.”
A challenge in preparing a budget that authorizes spending in the next fiscal year is uncertainty about funding from the state as it stares down a projected deficit of more than $200 million.
“Anyone who says they have an idea of how education is going to be addressed in the next legislative session is being creative,” Mannis said. “We just hope for the best.”
While many smaller communities were hit hard, Stamford retained the current level of its Education Cost-Sharing Grant. In some towns, the ECS grant is the only school funding handed down from the state. In Stamford, it accounts for about half of state aid. Despite the ECS win, Kim said the city has lost another grant, reducing its total state aid by up to 10 percent.
When the school year began without a state budget yet approved, Kim eliminated several positions in the central office and shifted media center paraeducators to other roles to save more than $1 million, he said. The paraeducators were later reinstated.
Besides contractual salary hikes, the 2018-19 proposed increase is driven largely by rising special education and transportation costs.
Also reflected in the budget are boosts to curriculum planning and enrichment programs, Kim said.
The final budget request was approved by the board in an 8-1 vote. Board member Andy George, chairman of the fiscal committee, voted against it because he didn’t like what was added to raise the increase to 1.83 percent, he said. It includes several contingency positions — an extra body that may be needed later on due to fluctuating enrollment.
“Once you approve it and say OK, then even if those positions aren’t filled you’ve essentially approved the position,” George said. “It would be different if they were proposing increasing programs or direct stuff for the kids.”
He said his vote was not based on the number but what was requested.
The Board of Finance will review the school budget in the coming weeks.