The West Hartford Board of Education voted Tuesday night to cut just under $300,000 from the budget originally proposed by Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore.
By Ronni Newton
The West Hartford Board of Education approved several cuts from the spending plan proposed by Superintendent Tom Moore on March 5, and voted 5-2 along party lines Tuesday night to approve a $168,800,689 budget for the 2019-20 academic year, a $4,449,162 or 2.71 percent increase above the $164,351,527 budget the Board operated under for the 2018-19 academic year.
The $296,216 trimmed from Moore’s original proposal includes $22,000 of CABE (Connecticut Association of Boards of Education) dues and a portion of the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) contribution.
During two workshops held in March, the Board combed through the proposed budget, and identified several items, totaling $879,129, to discuss Tuesday night as possible cuts.
In addition to the CABE dues, the Board had considered cutting $140,444 budgeted for a second World Language supervisor. That position has been open for two years – the first year due to a hiring freeze. Moore had added it back to the budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year, and gained Board approval, but the position again went unfilled after the Town Council voted last April to cut $200,000 from the district’s budget.
Other cuts the Board considered Tuesday night included $78,966 for an additional IT staff member, and a proposed increase of $113,503 in the supply budget.
Moore’s original budget incorporated the complete $524,216 that Gov. Ned Lamont allocated as West Hartford’s share of the Teachers’ Retirement System payment in his proposed state budget. Amid uncertainly about what will ultimately be included in the state’s budget, the Board voted to reduce that amount by $274,216 but keep $250,000 in the budget rather than risk having to go back and make more severe cuts should the town end up being responsible for the full amount.
Prior to voting on the overall budget, the Board discussed and voted on each proposed cut.
Board Chair Carol Blanks, a Democrat, was the only one to vote to maintain the $22,000 annual CABE membership, and said she really likes and appreciates the professional development, resources, and camaraderie that the organization provides to the Board.
Democrat Dave Pauluk, however, said, “If we are asking others to tighten their belt, we should too as a board.”
The Board had a lengthy discussion about eliminating the TRS contribution, and ultimately voted 4-3 in favor of keeping a $250,000 placeholder in the budget. Republicans Mark Zydanowicz and Rob Levine, and Democrat Cheryl Greenberg voted against it.
Democrat Deb Polun, who proposed keeping $250,000 in the budget in lieu of either eliminating the item completely or keeping the full amount in the budget, said the Board should be conservative and protect itself. “I don’t feel totally comfortable because there are too many unknowns,” she said about removing the entire amount.
Leaving a placeholder of $250,00 is a good balance, prudent rather than being totally unprepared, Polun said.
While the legislature’s Education Committee last week eliminated the governor’s proposal to require municipalities to contribute a portion of funding for teachers’ pensions, the measure will still be considered by the Appropriations Committee. The legislature will not vote on the state budget until after the Town Council approves West Hartford’s budget on April 23.
Zydanowicz said that leaving any money, even just a portion of the possible contribution, in the budget for the TRS will have a direct impact on West Hartford’s taxpayers in the mill rate. He noted that the Board of Education has been good stewards of its money and returns on average $700,000 to the Town Council as surplus at the end of each fiscal year. There should be funds able to be used if the town does become responsible for the pension contribution, he said.
He said that West Hartford’s Board of Education is the only one in the state that has the contribution included. “Let’s roll the dice on this one,” Zydanowicz said, adding that there does not appear to be legislative support and “the tea leaves say it’s not going to go through.”
Moore clarified that some towns do have the TRS contribution included in their municipal budget, and said that since the Appropriations Committee is planning to discuss the measure on Friday and there should be more clarity about the contribution by the time the Town Council votes.
Levine agreed with Zydanowicz, and said that he feels confident that if the Board somehow had to come up with the $524,216, it would find a way that wouldn’t impact the classroom. “I feel comfortable that we have a backup of funds if we have to face this responsibility.” He said that if necessary, the Town Council should be able to pay the contribution through its “rainy day fund.”
Pauluk said he thought that leaving a portion of the contribution in the budget “would be a proactive move on our part.”
Blanks said she was uncomfortable completely removing the contribution from the budget. “I think if we take the whole thing out that’s not a good idea. …I think it’s responsible if we leave at least half of it in.”
Greenberg said that she was very torn about this item, but ultimately apologized to her fellow Democrats and said she was persuaded by Zydanowicz. “If whatever increase we put in goes into the mill rate, whatever we don’t put in doesn’t go into the mill rate,” she said, adding that she is confident that there will be funds available if the town does end up responsible for the contribution.
The Board voted along party lines to keep the World Language supervisor position in the budget this year.
Pauluk said that for two years one person has been running all over town and doing the work of two, and continuing that is unjustified.
“There is one person that is overseeing 53 people and that’s untenable. … not good management,” Greenberg said.
Democrat Lorna Thomas-Farquharson said that the current situation could have a very negative impact on teacher morale, and that it would be proactive and responsible for the Board to keep the second supervisor position in the budget. The intent was never for one person to fill both roles, but that happened by default due to budget cuts the past two years.
Levine, however, said he doesn’t think it’s unreasonable to have one person managing that many people, and he would “rather allocate to something that the frontline folks would most prefer.”
Moore clarified that the reason the supervisor position was cut again last year is because it was not filled when the Town Council asked the Board to make further cuts. “It’s the option of firing someone or not filling a position,” he said.
The audience, which included principals from many of the schools, applauded after the vote to keep the supervisor position in the budget.
The Board also voted along party lines not to eliminate $78,966 for an additional IT staff member.
Moore had proposed the addition because he said that the number of help desk tickets has doubled overall – including requests for fixes, maintenance, and professional development.
Upgrades made to the district’s security systems at all schools has also added to the IT needs, Assistant Superintendent Andy Morrow said.
Moore’s proposed budget added $113,503 to the district’s supply budget, which Director of Finance and Planning Chip Ward said is a 1.5 percent increase. The budget has not been increased in the past two years, and was cut three years ago, he said.
The supply budget includes items like paper and markers, as well as some funds for field trips and for replacing books.
Levine said that while he wasn’t against the increase in theory, “somebody’s got to say no sometime.” He said that the district’s budget is “ginormous” and “we can’t do everything for everyone.”
Polun, as well as Zydanowicz, joined Levine in voting to cut the $113,5o3 from the supply budget, but four Democrats voted to keep the funding in the budget and they prevailed.
When student representative Megan Striff-Cave asked what percentage of teachers use their own money to buy supplies, the answer was a resounding “100 percent.” All Board members agreed that teachers across the country invest in their own classrooms, and all agreed that this proposed change to the supply budget would not eliminate that.
Pauluk praised the Board’s lively discussion, and said that the budget has been reviewed in great detail by the Board.
The Board also held a public hearing on the budget at 7 p.m. on March 27 – but not a single member of the public showed up.
Zydanowicz said that while he takes that to mean that people are happy with the budget, he is concerned that increases are unsustainable. When it came time to vote on the overall budget, he voted against it.
Levine also voted against it, while all five Democrats voted in favor of the $166.8 million budget.
Greenberg said that while it sounds like a lot of money, “everything in this budget seems absolutely necessary,” and she didn’t see a single thing that could be eliminated.
“We are elected to keep the school system as wonderful as it is,” Greenberg said, and everyone is already doing more with less. “I feel so grateful that everyone is working to keep that possible.”
Thomas-Farquharson said the whole town benefits from our great schools, and that the value of a good education “is priceless.”
Blanks said that while it would be great to be able to provide even more funding, this budget allows educators to do what they need to do every single day. “We are already at the marrow and it’s hard to make even deeper cuts,” she said.
“You all are the reason why West Hartford remains as a top district, and why people gravitate to this district far and wide,” Blanks said to the educators in the audience. “You work hard to keep us there.”
The detailed budget is available on the West Hartford Public Schools website here.
The West Hartford Public Schools budget is part of the overall town budget, which will be adopted by the Town Council on Tuesday, April 23.
The Town Council held a pubic hearing on the budget on March 21, and has one more hearing scheduled, on Monday, April 15 at 2 p.m. at Town Hall.
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