Budget talks continue for Board of Ed

The Board of Education held a budget meeting on Jan. 16 with the sole agenda item being budget discussions. The meeting is bracketed by two regular meetings, one held on Jan. 9 and one next week on Jan. 23, which will cover non-budget items as well. The proposed budget from Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner that was presented on Jan. 6 asked for a 2018-19 budget of $98,511,340, a 2.75% increase from last year.
Members of the RTM Education Committee as well the Finance and Budget Committee were present for the meeting. Most of the discussion stemmed from questions at that Saturday meeting raised by members of the RTM and community at large. The meeting opened with public comment as usual, and the only speaker was Finance and Budget Chairman Jack Davis. Davis urged the board to keep a perspective when it come time to evaluate and modify the proposed budget.
“Not everything is a priority one,” Davis said, and asked the board to keep that in mind as they went through to modify, “up or down”, items in the budget. “The board has to decide what your priorities are, that’s the challenge today,” Davis said.
The discussions held at the meeting primarily addressed concerns from the Jan. 6 meeting. First and foremost, there were questions about the budget lines dealing with substitutes. There was a discrepancy in the budget from one year to the next, and board members were concerned with the change and the dollar amount. Administrators explained that while individual schools substitute numbers had changed, the grand total had not, and the questions could be answer by explaining a coding change. In prior years, the substitute number was coded to be building specific. This accounted for the change individual building numbers, as well as the apparent spike in money for special education substitutes. A substitute may have been coded to a particular building in previous years, but now is coded for the special education budget, causing an apparent spike. Special education substitutes from across the district are also all coded into one place. Most paraprofessionals work in special education as well and are coded there, while other substitutes would be coded to a particular building. This also contributed to the discrepancy.
Another item that saw extended discussion dealt with the use of police for events on school grounds. The district uses police and campus monitors as needed for school activities. Events that take place and have significant demands in terms of managing traffic often use police. Additionally, if the event involves use of areas that are off campus, or the campus is closed police are used. Campus monitors are asked to help whenever possible, and are paid overtime to do so, which is still cheaper than the cost of using police officers, but there are only six monitors and they do not always wish to work those extra hours, and the administration has no way of compelling them to do so. The administration has, however, reached out to organizations outside of the school district who use the fields or buildings and sometimes require a police presence, and those organizations will now reimburse part of the cost. The budget would show a savings of $14,000 in this area.
The administration also took questions on the estimates regarding Excess Cost Reimbursement. This is state aid that reimburses districts for money spent on special education students. Districts take the cost of educating a student, multiply it by 4.5 to get a floor, and money spend beyond that is eligible for reimbursement. There is one large pool of money that the every district in the state draws from for reimbursement. Director of Finance Michael Feeney pointed out that in 2008-09, the rate of reimbursement was 100%, but has been in fairly steady decline since then. For the current year, the budgeted number was 68% reimbursement, or $2.3 million. This was regarded as a conservative number in the budget. Feeney said the proposed budget is also at 68%, but that the administration believes that number will actually be higher. Brenner said there is concern that some districts will file requests more aggressively this year. “I’ve heard state money for this coming year is safe for special education. That is an assumption I think is relatively safe. I’ve also heard people talking about being a bit more aggressive with how they file,” Brenner said. Feeney also said there is an unknown for the future which is that the formula could change, and a town wealth factor could be added. Brenner said that the wealth factor is definitely “on the table” in conversations in Hartford.
Other issues included the run rates for speech and consultant services. The administration explained that coming up with a run rate was challenging and probably unreasonable to do, since the money spent changes so significantly in stretches from June to December and then from December to June. The board had also asked for historic turnover information in terms of retirements, staff leaving, and the real dollar amounts attached. Brenner said that information would be ready for the Jan. 23 board meeting.
The Board of Education will meet again on Jan. 23 to continue budget talks.