Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore’s proposed budget for the West Hartford Public School’s 2017-2018 academic year includes a $12.94 million overall increase.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford taxpayers have been bracing themselves for the budget proposals from Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore and Town Manager Ron Van Winkle ever since Gov. Dannel P. Malloy presented a state budget Feb. 8 that slashed aid to the town, and the proposed $166.22 million West Hartford Public Schools 2017-2018 general fund budget proposed Tuesday night spells out the impact in black and white.
There was so much concern and interest in the budget that the legislative chambers at Town Hall were overflowing, with people sitting on the floor and some standing in the hallway. Many of those in the audience were teachers or administrators.
“It’s a tough year. We knew it would be and it’s come to fruition,” Moore said, prefacing his presentation to the Board of Education. “The debate over the next seven weeks is for us to really understand who we are,” Moore said, what we expect from our schools and what are we willing to give to have these schools.
The budget Moore presented Tuesday night totals $166,220,361 million, a $12,937,339 million, or 8.44 percent increase over last year’s $153,283,022 million West Hartford Public Schools budget.
Moore’s proposal incorporates additional teacher pension costs allocated by the state that must be absorbed this year, adding $8.01 million to West Hartford’s education budget. Changes in the state’s special education funding give the town an additional $2.2 million, but there’s still a $5.81 million (3.79 percent) overall hit due to the governor’s proposal.
Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) dollars have never been part of the school budget, Moore said. The state’s proposal decreases ECS funding to West Hartford by about $8.5 million from what it gave the town last year, and that figure, along with other cuts in state aid, will be reflected in the FY2018 budget Van Winkle will propose on March 8.
Before providing the budget details, Moore told the crowd that there were some things that need to be taken into account, including the town’s diversity. “There’s no one like us. West Hartford represents much of the state’s demographic makeup, and the nation’s.”
People come to West Hartford and see the Center, and they think one thing about the town, he said, but most don’t realize how unique this school district actually is. One in five households in West Hartford speak a language other than English in the home, Moore said. And there are 73 different languages represented.
In addition, 21 percent of West Hartford Public Schools students receive free or reduced lunch, and 12 percent of students receive some type of special education service.
Historical spending is a key metric to look at, Moore said, showing a slide of per pupil spending on which West Hartford is ranked 128 out of 169 towns in per pupil spending for the current fiscal year. “I can promise you they’re not so highly acclaimed,” he said of most of the towns that spend more.
Both Hall and Conard have the third highest number of students successfully completing at least one AP course. Both high schools are in the top 1 percent, with only Fairfield County’s Wilton and Weston ranked higher.
Moore said it’s important to contextualize West Hartford’s average expenditure of $15,022 per pupil. Spending at the state average of $16,249 per pupil would add another $12.4 million to the school budget. The 10 largest schools systems in the state spend an average of $16,255 per pupil, and DRG B, the cohort to which West Hartford belongs, spends $16,467 on average. Over the past five years, the town would have spent an additional $60 million if it kept pace with DRG B.
“What we get for $15,000 is remarkable. I would stack that up against any system in the state,” Moore said. “There is no question that what these people provide is the best bang for the buck in the state, and I would say in the country.”
As he summarized the budget for Board members, Moore broke down his analysis into the impact from changes in state aid, the roll forward budget, and his initial cuts.
Moore’s roll forward budget – the cost for 2017-2018 of providing the same services and programs as in the previous year – reflected sharp increases of $9.29 million (6.06 percent), but Moore said those are out of his control.
Salary increases of $4.1 million (4.07 percent) are driven by contractually-required step increases. Although the recently-negotiated contract is a good one, Moore said, the district has many young teachers who are at the early stages of their career.
The town is self-insured, and the district’s medical expenses have increased by a staggering $3.69 million (17.52 percent), primarily impacted by $9.7 million in catastrophic claims – serious illnesses, hospitalizations, NICU stays – filed through January 2017. That compares to $4 million for the same period last year.
Non-teacher pension costs, transportation, and tuition also increased, but did not have much of an overall dollar impact.
Many have said the governor’s budget is DOA in the legislature, but the truth is that no one has any idea what the state budget, which likely won’t be approved until at least the summer, will look like. “Realistically we’re throwing darts at a dartboard with a blindfold on not knowing where the dartboard is.” It could even get worse than what has been proposed, he said.
Moore said he knows that the roll forward budget, which would be a 10 percent increase, was untenable and couldn’t be supported. “We made some changes and I made some cuts,” he said. He tried to keep those changes from impacting individual children.
Enrollment, a total of 9,682 students, is down slightly, allowing for a decrease of just over 9 full-time equivalent (FTE) teachers for a savings of $743,000. Six of those come at the elementary school level.
A “tightening” of staff in other areas resulted in $604,000 in savings by the elimination of 7.2 FTE positions. At the elementary school level those changes involve rescheduling specials like art and music as well as Quest, and also rescheduling middle school world language instruction. A substance abuse coordinator position will be eliminated and vacant positions in IT and maintenance will not be filled, Moore said.
The Leadership Academy, which trains staff for future administrative roles and leadership positions in their buildings, and has been highly successful, will also be eliminated, as will a Movia Robotics program.
“Supplies will be cut to levels of five years ago,” Moore said, impacting the replacement of computers, textbooks, and other department supplies, and trimming $703,000 from the budget.
An increase in pay-to-play for high school sports, from $150 to $200 per season (capped at $800 per family) nets a $100,000 savings. “I’m philosophically against that,” Moore said, but he knows that families are used to having to pay for sports outside of school and believes it’s a cost parents can bear.
Moore’s initial cuts, added all together, lead to $2.16 million and knock 1.41 percent off the budget.
Even with Moore’s cuts, many of which would lead to layoffs, the resulting $166.22 million budget, with an increase of $12.94 million (8.44 percent), is still not something he expects the Board to pass or taxpayers to absorb. But it’s what it will take to maintain West Hartford Public Schools as they are.
What will likely be acceptable to the Board, and to taxpayers, will involve “doing less with less,” he said.
Moore said he has spent the past two weeks visiting schools and will continue to do that until he has met with everyone. Meeting face-to-face with those impacted is important, he said.
“I understand that the proposed increase is $12.94 million, and I understand that the community will want reductions,” Moore said.
Now is when the democratic process really begins, Moore said, and the Board of Education will have some tough decisions.
He has laid out options for the Board to consider – and all involve people losing jobs. There are some great young teachers in the system right now, and he said he would hate to see them lose their jobs. The reductions are not recommendations, just options.
“My head is not in the sand about what is appropriate but I just don’t know what the answer is,” he said.
“Everything in here is a person. Everything is a teacher, a support staff who works to make our schools better,” said Moore. Their commitment to the town and to the kids is inspiring.
Increasing class sizes by two at the elementary would eliminate 9.0 FTE and save $585,000. Increasing class size by three at the high school level would eliminate 17.2 FTE positions and save $1,118,000. Some high school classes might end up with 30 students, Moore said.
Other possible reductions could be eliminating “teams” in seventh and eighth grade (8.0 FTE or $520,000) or cutting support for students (special education, reading specialists, guidance counselors).
Also possible are the elimination of programs like Quest at the elementary and middle school level (as much as $720,o00 in savings), full-day kindergarten at non-Title I schools (12.0 FTE and $560,000), elementary school librarians and world language instruction. Unified arts in middle school could be cut back for a savings of 18.0 FTE and $1,059,000. Departmental supervisors could be cut back, and clerical, maintenance, and custodial staff could be trimmed. Even cutting the number of credit hours required for physical education is a possibility, and would cut 1.7 FTE and save $110,500.
“All of these cuts still don’t add up to $10 million,” Moore said.
“There’s no pretending we’re going to be able to run the same school system because we’re not,” Moore said. This is a challenge which will help West Hartford decide “who we are as a community.”
Moore said he believes in West Hartford, lives here, and has two children in the schools here.
Moore said he will be sending a letter to all families Tuesday night through Blackboard Connect, and wants to be sure that people are aware and involved in the budget process. “It’s up to you, the people, to decide and give input.”
Town Manager Ron Van Winkle will present the town’s general budget, which will incorporate the education budget, on Wednesday, March 8. Upcoming opportunities to learn more and discuss both the town and the school the budget will take place at the following scheduled meetings:
- Public Information Session on 2017-18 Town Budget, March 13, Town Hall Auditorium, 6:30 p.m. Public may speak. [UDPATE: THIS SESSION HAS BEEN CANCELLED!]
Budget Workshop no. 1 – March 15, Town Hall, 7 p.m.
Budget Workshop no. 2 – March 21, Town Hall, 7 p.m.
Council and Board of Education Forum – March 23, Charter Oak International Academy, 6 p.m.
Board Public Hearing – March 29, Town Hall, 7 p.m.
Budget Workshop no. 3 – March 29, following public hearing
The Board of Education will adopt its budget on April 4. That meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.
The Town Council is scheduled to adopt the entire budget on April 25.
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