The weight of whether or not Meriden will have to next year may rest on the shoulders of state legislators, city school administrators said Wednesday night in a special Finance Committee meeting on the budget.
Both the district and the city are hoping the legislature will pass the Governor's education reform bill, which would shore up an additional $3.9 million dollars for the schools' 2012-2013 proposed budget – leaving the city to contribute the same amount it has for the past three years in a time when city councilors say they just can't give more.
"This year is very different than any of the past (budget presentations)...simply put, this is because both sides agree that there's a strong potential that the Board of Education can maintain all of its programs with a level funded allocation from the city," Board of Education President Mark Hughes (D) said, opening the district's budget presentation.
The overall exchange was much less contentious than budget battles between the Board and City Council in years past, with both sides acknowledging they're working hard to save anywhere they can in a tough economic time.
Schools superintendent Mark Benigni walked city councilors through a Powerpoint presentation on the district's budget request.
The bottom line, he said, is that if the state comes through with an anticipated for Meriden, and also changes the reimbursement rate the city gets for sending students to Thomas Edison Magnet School so that the city is reimbursed another $2.1 million of its tuition money, the district won't have to ask for any increase from the city this year. In this case the request would be $99,608,340.
But if those measures, both currently part of an education reform bill that was passed by the general assembly's education committee Monday, don't pass the legislature, the schools will be asking the city for a $3.9 million increase to maintain services.
School and city officials seemed hopeful that the legislature would pass the bill. But if funds don't come through, councilors and city staff said that a full $3.9 million increase would be unlikely to pass a council vote.
"There is a limit to what we can do, you all know that, we all know that. I don't see any way the City Council could ever approve a $4 million increase in one year for the Board of Education," Councilor Brian Daniels (D) said Wednesday. "Especially when you look at that as a number we would build into the base - that's an extra $40 million for the next 10 years."
The requested increase is primarily to make up for a loss of $2,680,000 in federal stimulus "Education Jobs Funds" from the last budget that previously paid for 40 teaching positions, Benigni said. A furlough day that saved the district $240,000 this year and $1,077,000 of pre-spending on items are the other two items that were savings in the current year's budget that both won't carry over into next year's budget.
City Councilor Walt Shamock (W) asked Benigni why the district obtained stimulus funds in the first place if administrators knew they were temporary.
"When this money is gone, you leave a big hole in the budget. The taxpayers pick up the tab after the stimulus funding runs out," Shamock said.
Benigni said that having the teachers was worth it.
"I would rather have had those 40 teachers. Even if it meant that I could only sustain them for one year...because it makes a difference for our kids," Benigni said.
The superintendent presented the district's efforts to otherwise offset budget increases like contractual salary and benefit bumps with savings in areas like cutting three central office positions and reorganizing special education programs.
The district cut three positions in its central office, resulting in a $206,000 savings, changed its expulsion program to save another $120,000, and shifted power costs to its food service budget to save $115,745.
New special education initiatives – focused on keeping kids in the district to avoid paying between $25,000 - $70,000 per student to send them to programs elsewhere – has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the presentation.
"Every student I outplace is one less teacher I have in district," Benigni said of the costs.
An in-house elementary behavior program at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School saved the district $200,000, according to Board of Ed statistics. A new in-house behavior program in the high schools and "revamped" Venture Academy will provide savings yet to be determined, school officials say.
By providing more quality special education programs in house, the number of students being sent out of district has decreased from 230 in 2010-2011 to 195 in the current school year. The school administration has plans to continue to whittle away at that number by establishing more in-district services, like an autism center at Hanover Elementary school.
"I believe you all have done a phenomenal job in the past year with the juggling act...between trying to save money as well as keeping a valuable and quality educational program," City Councilor and School Board Liasion Dante Bartolomeo (D) said.
Other major budget increases were mostly contractual increases in salaries and benefits, higher than the previous year from the cost of absorbing about 40 of the previous stimulus-paid jobs into the district. There was an increase of $1,422,484 in certified salaries, and $438,170 in classified salaries. Health insurance costs went up $647,180, social security costs were up $122,948, and retirement increased $400,859.
Transportation also saw a contractual increase of $396,929.
The Board of Education's final request to the city hinges on legislative action. The additional state funds, if the city indeed gets them, will be sustainable, school administrators say.
"By design this is a very difficult year because of the loss of Educational Jobs funds, Benigni said. "The request looks big, but when you really look at why it's there, those holes are going to be filled in. It's really a credit to the state. If these dollars do come through, this is continual funding - this isn't one-year stimulus funding."