Stamford school board pushes back on $2M budget cut from city, saying ‘it does affect the children’

Students arrive at Stamford High School in Stamford, Conn. Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.

Students arrive at Stamford High School in Stamford, Conn. Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

STAMFORD — A late-night vote to trim $2 million from the Stamford school district’s budget has rankled some members of the school board, who are now faced with paring down their operating allocations.

Board of Education chair Jackie Heftman questioned the timing and process of the vote.

“It’s disappointing that there is such a lack of transparency on the (Board of Representatives), and to hear and read in The Advocate how much some members in leadership positions don’t understand about the budgets they vote on,” she wrote in an email.

The cut, which was proposed by Rep. Virgil de la Cruz, D-2, after midnight during a meeting that started Tuesday night, came after the Board of Representatives’ own Fiscal Committee had offered no changes to the school board’s budget previously approved by the Board of Finance.

The finance board voted to cut the education budget by $4.4 million, though roughly $1.19 million of that reflected a change in budget estimates. In all, the Board of Education will be faced with finding about $5 million in savings when it votes to re-appropriate funds.

Since no cut to the Board of Education’s budget was expected on Tuesday night, school officials were not at the Board of Representatives meeting, and could not make a case for saving the $2 million, they said.

In comparison, other departments that had their budgets trimmed in the Fiscal Committee had the opportunity to write letters to the board arguing against those cuts.

“The (Board of Representatives) fiscal committee recommended no cuts but in the dead of night the BOR made a $2 (million) cut,” Hetfman wrote. “The heads of the nonprofit agencies and city (department) heads were given an opportunity to address proposed cuts to their budgets, but no such opportunity was afforded to the superintendent. I guess transparency didn’t matter here either.”

Part of de la Cruz’ reasoning for the reduction rested on a nearly $3 million education surplus in the current fiscal year.

“It’s a matter of realistic budgeting,” he said during the meeting.

Again, Heftman disagreed with the logic.

“To base a cut on the surplus of the previous year’s budget fails to recognize the fact that the (Board of Education) returns those unspent dollars to the city, which are then used to fund capital projects,” she said. “That’s money that doesn’t have to be bonded, saving the taxpayers the cost of servicing the debt.”

She added, “Realistic budgeting means asking for only what you need and returning what you haven’t spent.”

Board of Education member Andy George was similarly nonplussed by the decision to eliminate dollars from the schools’ requested spending plan.

“I think the Board of Representatives cut came as a big surprise because the Fiscal Committee made no cuts,” George said.

During the Tuesday meeting, Rep. Nina Sherwood, D-8, said that “year after year” teacher and paraeducator positions are left unfilled even though they are included in the district’s budget.

“What does get filled on a continual basis is additional administrators — more assistant principals, more assistant superintendents,” she said, during the meeting. “We have a very, very, very high cost of administration. And, unfortunately, somehow the department doesn’t seem to find a way to fill the positions that actually are hands-on-the-ground with the kids.”

Sherwood argued that the $2 million cut would “not hurt the children.”

Heftman said the tight labor market, due to the effects of COVID-19, has made it challenging to fill positions. But each one of those unfilled spots signifies an “unmet need.”

George argued that there is a “lack of understanding” about what administrators do in a school district. And he questioned why representatives supported the multi-million dollar cut. The final vote on the budget reduction was 19-13 in favor, with two abstentions.

“To me, their power is really supposed to focus on the overall tax, not whether they feel there are too many administrators versus teachers,” he said, about the representatives.

George pushed back on Sherwood’s claim that students won’t be affected by the budget cut.

“One way or another it does affect the children,” he said.

Not all school board members were dismayed by the budget reduction, however.

Members Nicola Tarzia and Becky Hamman, two of the three Republicans on the board, agreed with Sherwood’s comments.

“Maybe the superintendent should allocate more money to teachers than to administrators,” Tarzia said.

Hamman said Sherwood’s comments were “spot on.”

“I think the administrative side is bloated and there have to be some of those cuts made in order to help the instructional piece,” said Hamman, who voted against the school district’s budget request this year, arguing it was too high.

Efforts were made to reach Superintendent Tamu Lucero through schools spokesperson Justin Martin, but neither responded in time for publication.