Members of the Board of Finance told the Board of Education Tuesday that while they are pleased the preliminary 2013-2014 school budget has been held to a 4.07% increase, they are nevertheless concerned about the "doubling" of the proposed capital budget.
As presented by the school administration, the proposed capital budget request stands at $2,252,700, a considerable increase from the current capital budget of $1,570,000. It includes funding for major "one time" projects — some of which had been deferred from previous years — including the removal and/or replacement of oil tanks at all the schools except Middlesex Middle School; the installation of new generators at all seven schools; the installation of outdoor public announcement systems at several schools; and the renovation of the gym locker rooms at Darien High School, among other improvements.
"Our area of biggest concern is the doubling of the capital budget," Board of Finance Chairman Elizabeth Smith Mao said during the annual preliminary budget meeting between the two boards. "We are not prejudging anything — but we ask you to take a really hard look at items like generators for every school."
"I come in with a predisposition that it's not really worth $2 million to the town [for generators], it's too much of a tax increase as it is," Mao said. "We have an open mind — we will listen — but we have to weigh, what is the extra cost of generators at every school and how many additional days would we get of schools being open when storms occur?"
Mao added that in general her board was not inclined to cut capital items that are related to general maintenance and upkeep of the facilities.
"Things like painting and replacing chairs we're inclined to fund — we're not looking for you to cut back on maintenance," she said.
The proposed school budget, which was unveiled on Jan. 8, totals $82,239,646, an increase of $3,255,464, or 4.07% over the current budget (see attached PDFs).
Driving the overall budget increase — in addition to the aforementioned capital projects — is hikes in salaries and benefits for school staff. According to Superintendent of Schools Stephen Falcone, $1,569,283 of the total increase — or about 48% — is directly attributable to increases in insurance and retirement benefits, while $319,873 is for salary increases.
Also driving the budget hike is a $285,642 increase in special education costs; $134,200 to prepare for the introduction of the Common Core State Standards and related Teacher Evaluation Plan; and $231,455 for new technology initiatives.
Enrollment is also playing a role in the budget increase — as of December the district was forecasting about 60 additional students for the 2013-2014 school year, 43 of them in the elementary schools.
Because enrollment projections continuously change, Mao said her board would be asking the Board of Education "keep us updated on enrollment forecasts" throughout the budget process. She pointed out that two new housing developments that are underway — Kensett and Allen O'Neill — probably won't have much impact on enrollment in the 2013-2014 school year, as it appears they won't be completed as early as had been forecast.
Board Chairman Elizabeth Hagerty-Ross said any potential impact on enrollment from the two developments has not been factored into the budget.
At the start of the meeting, Mao emphasized that her board had not yet reviewed the school budget in any detail.
"We have not been briefed on it, nor have we had time to look at it with any scrutiny," she said. "We are not prepared to give you a magic number, but I will say we are relieved that you didn't come in at [a] 5, 6, 7, or even 8% [increase]. So I think we are starting from a much better place than we have in years past."
"Of course we are working on a much bigger denominator," she added, pointing out that "the growth [in the school budget] since 2003 has been quite considerable."
"We will be looking at this with great scrutiny," Mao said. "There are a few areas that we will be looking at for additional information. There was some request for being able to break out the numbers by school… "
Although the Board of Finance does not have line item control over the school budget, Mao said there was some discussion among the board members that perhaps the school district should not have as much "budget control" with regard to building contingencies for additional class sections, if they are needed.
"We know you put into last year's budget two and half [class] sections of budget control — and you ended up having to fund five," Mao said. "It's wonderful that you were able to do that — but the fact that you were able to do it without coming to us [to request additional funding], tells us that perhaps some other areas [of the budget] might have been a bit rich…"
Hagerty-Ross said the district "got a nice surprise" when it received a break on the cost of healthcare last year. She said the leftover funds were used to help off-set the cost of adding the two and a half additional class sections, which were not anticipated.
Hagerty-Ross reminded Mao that it's the board's prerogative to do that. "We get a set budget and we have to do everything within that set number," she said.
"Yes but if you are able to fund those two and a half sections without a lot of pain…" Mao said.
"Oh there was pain involved," Hagerty-Ross countered. "It's just that your board's definition of 'pain' is a little different than ours… there was scrutiny and there was deliberation…"
Mao said the Board of Finance had been "discussing the possibility of asking you not to have so much budget control, but maybe coming to us in August and asking for more money."
Tuesday's meeting was the third budget session for the Board of Education, which is now deep in the process of going through the proposed budget line by line in order to find additional savings. The board is scheduled to review the special education budget during tonight's (Wednesday's) meeting in the Board of Education meeting room at Town Hall.
The Board of Education will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget on Feb. 5 and is expected to approve the final budget on Feb. 12. It will then submit the budget to the Board of Finance on March 5.
Hagerty-Ross said there could be some changes to the budget as a result of increased security measures at the schools in response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, however she did not go into specifics.