When the West Hartford Town Council adopted the general fund budget on April 25, they allocated an amount that differed from what the Board of Education had adopted earlier in the month.
By Ronni Newton
The spending plan that the West Hartford Board of Education sent to the Town Council for inclusion in the FY24 general fund budget was changed when the overall town budget was adopted on April 25 – with $66,441 added to the amount that had been requested – and Tuesday night the Board voted unanimously to allocate those funds to the out-of-district tuition appropriation.
When the Board of Education adopted its budget on April 4, they added $183,559 to the superintendent’s original proposal to support maintaining a second STEM position at Smith STEM School and to continue a subsidy for pay-to-play fees at the high schools. While the Town Council can’t make line item changes to the school budget, they can determine the overall allocation and voted to instead add $250,000 – increasing the education budget by $66,441 to $190,191,121.
When he spoke to the Town Council prior to the April 25 vote, Town Manager Rick Ledwith said the state had just informed all school districts that the excess cost grant for special education, which had been budgeted at 85% reimbursement, will only be funded this year at 73.7%. The impact will be a shortfall of roughly $700,000 in the current fiscal year – which the district will have to make up – and an expected shortfall for FY24 as well. While the Town Council could not direct the use of the extra $66,441, it was noted that it could be used for the purpose of addressing the shortfall.
Parents and children from throughout the district, particularly from Wolcott Elementary School, have been lobbying the Board of Education to include funding for another elementary music educator, and several advocated for that when speaking to the Board of Education Tuesday night during public comment. The district’s plan for FY24 is to not replace a secondary school music teacher who is retiring and instead fill that position with a current elementary music teacher. The overall change to the music staff is a reduction from 10.5 full-time equivalent positions (FTE) to 9.5 FTE.
Superintendent Paul Vicinus said he very much appreciates the outpouring of support regarding the district’s music program, and the advocacy from the Wolcott community where there is exceptional participation in the program.
“But this planned reduction [from 10.5 to 9.5 FTE positions] that we have talked about does not rest solely at Wolcott,” he said. There has been a reduction over time of 300 students at the elementary school level and there have not been any reductions to the number of FTE music educator positions. The district didn’t want to cut half of a position, but chose instead to wait for a retirement.
Vicinus said he is thankful for the excess funding graciously provided by the Town Council, which came about after officials learned about the dramatic shortfall in funding of the excess cost grant for special education. While the state is supposed to fund 100% of the costs to educate special education students once they exceed 4.5 times the per pupil expenditure – roughly the cost in excess of $90,000 per West Hartford student – the state had been funding 85% of those costs until now.
His recommendation to the Board of Education was that it would be most responsible to use the extra $66,441 from the Town Council to cover expenses for students who need outplacement for reasons that may include being medically fragile or with emotional concerns that need to be addressed in another facility. Outplacement, while costly, is programming that is “100% appropriate” as well as statutorily required, Vicinus said, and he anticipates that funding statutorily-required outplacement will be a budget driver going forward.
Regarding the reduction in elementary music education FTE positions, Vicinus said, “We are working as closely as we can to ensure that this has minimal impact.” Scheduling won’t be determined for months, he said, but the overall impact will be that the average group size will change from 3.5 to 3.9.
Dropping that funding to 73.7% has created a roughly $700,000 shortfall in the current budget, which Director of Finance and Planning Liz Hewitt said the district is working to address. The $100,000 McKinney-Vento Homeless
Assistance Grant that the district received last month, and tapping into reserves currently available from the educational services reimbursement program in the School Special Programs fund (used for purposes such as special education services provided to Open Choice students), as well as deferring the hiring of a maintenance employee and other spending restrictions will enable the district to meet the current budget shortfall.
A proposal made Tuesday night by Republican Ethan Goldman to create a specific task force of Board members to identify cost savings in the budget and to work with the administration earlier in the budget process failed along party lines.
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