At Superintendent Level, Use of Surplus Funds Drives Budget
NEWINGTON - Superintendent of Schools Bill Collins told the Board of Education that he needs at least a 2.99 percent increase this year to operate the district sufficiently, but that the sliding scale-moved by a number of unknowns that include special education outplacement costs that may emerge as new students move into the district over the next 18 months-could hit as high as 8.2 percent.

       Collins said that his official ask-3.96 percent-is compounded by $450,000 in special education and $1.2 million in staff salary costs covered this year by surplus money to form a 5.4 percent recommendation.

       The use of the surplus money-largely health benefit credits-has left a total of $5 in the Board’s surplus retention account, meaning they will need to look elsewhere to cover the recurring and yearly special education outplacement costs that crept up on them this past Spring, as well as 14 teaching positions saved from layoffs by $1.2 million in health benefit credits, Collins said.

       Collins’ proposal-presented to the Board at the January 24 regular meeting as Mayor Roy Zartarian and several Councilors looked on-represents a “starting point”, said Board Chair Josh Shulman. The Board began workshopping the proposal Tuesday and Wednesday night.

       The special education costs are part of a slew of unknowns-including magnet school tuition and new, unfunded state mandates-that the district has to contend with while stretching tighter financial resources against shrinking levels of state aid, Collins told the Board.

       Last year surprise special education cost increases were part of what prompted the Board to request an special appropriation-from their Capital Improvements Program (CIP) fund-and the incident was indicative of what Collins outlined as a historic growth in the level of need throughout district schools.

       Students receiving special education services make up 14.5 percent of the district population-up from 10.9 percent 10 years ago. Fifty four-or 1.3 percent-of those students are outplaced, according to Collins’ presentation.

       “It’s not good or bad-it’s a matter of providing,” Collins said.

       Twenty-nine of those students are outplaced through a CREC program, but magnet tuition in general is an ever moving target, Collins said.

       And most recently, that target has moved down-from October’s 191 to the current 171-but the district, per CREC’s October 1 dropout deadline, will still foot the bill for the 191.

       The flow of unfunded state mandates are always a factor, but taking the spotlight this year has been a requirement that expelled students receive an educational program similar to their peers. The Board has been discussing how to fulfill the obligation outlined under the legislation for several months now, and it’s come down to a couple of options: outsource to CREC to the tune of $400,000, or handle it in-house.

       “We believe we can do it in-house,” Collins said. “I think we can do it for less money than that-like $150,000 less. We have the elements of the program, but we just need a space.”

       And the space cannot be a school building-for safety reasons-leaving the Board’s Facilities Committee to explore options for leasing.


       He’ll leave it up to the Board, but they’ll need to fund one of those options in order for the district to be in compliance, his presentation reads.

       Collins has deferred requests for school bus purchases-the district’s replacement plan calls for 6 per year, to keep up with the fleet’s aging cycle-as well as desktop computer replacements that, Collins hopes, they’ll be able to cover with any health benefits surpluses.

       “I would recommend if there was any money in CIP, to start saving to put it toward a garage so the buses can be stored inside. We save a lot of money keeping the busses inside,” he said.

       How much? About $200,000 per year, Collins said.

       Collins is hoping that this will be the year he hires two high school level STEM teachers-$185,000 total-to staff the completed biomedical and aerospace facilities constructed as further stepping stones on a curriculum path set with the launch of their middle school counterparts.

       He has not recommended the restoration of $642,000 in technology reductions made during last year’s cycle, a decision he said will have more of an impact on the staff side, as the district’s 1-to-1 program has mitigated need for student device purchases.

       As is typically the case, staff salaries and benefits make up a vast majority of the recommended budget-around 80 percent, this year. Costs for teacher salaries alone will shoot up 5.9 percent, but only when taking into account the use of surplus funds to cover them last year, according to Collins.