West Hartford Board of Education Approves Budget with a Few Cuts, Reallocations

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The West Hartford Board of Education approved an amended budget of $175,556,055 Tuesday night by a vote of 6-1.

By Ronni Newton

The West Hartford Board of Education debated the use of pandemic-related federal funds for several items before making several amendments to the superintendent’s original proposal and voting 6-1 to approve a budget that increases education spending by 1.85%.

Republican Mark Zydanowicz cast the lone vote against the budget.

Superintendent Tom Moore’s original budget proposal of $176,303,925 for 2021-2022, which he presented March 2, would have increased spending by $3,930,397 (or 2.28%) over the $172,373,528 million revised adopted budget the Board has been operating under for the 2020-2021 academic year.

The Board trimmed $747,870 from that proposal through a combination of projected savings for health and medical expenses due to rates and the number of participants in the plan (reduction of $225,000), offsetting a $350,000 estimated deficit in the nutrition services fund with American Rescue Plan Act funds, and using $172,870 in federal ESSER II (Emergency and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds to pay for two additional elementary school sections that will be needed next year.

The Board of Education’s amended budget now totals $175,556,055.

West Hartford Public Schools has roughly $4 million in ESSER II funds available for use over the next two years from legislation passed by Congress in late 2020, and $10.3 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds earmarked for K-12 education available over the next three years allocated from the $1.9 trillion plan passed in March.

The federal money is intended to respond to COVID-related expenses and losses, and Liz Hewitt, director of finance and planning for West Hartford Public Schools, said the Board’s planned use of the money would be permitted.

Use of the federal funds to offset losses in nutrition services was approved unanimously by the Board without debate, but the decision to use funds to pay for a number of elementary school teachers that will be added for the 2021-2022 academic year sparked extensive discussion, as did a proposal raised by Board Chair Deb Polun, a Democrat, to eliminate secondary school activity fees and for pay for play fees next year.

The Board ultimately approved, by a vote of 4-3 (Polun, Democrat Lorna Thomas-Farquharson, Republican Liz Wilcox, and Zydanowicz in favor, and Democrats Amanda Aronson, Jason Chang, and Ari Steinberg opposed), a plan to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to encourage student participation and cover the estimated $25,000 in activity fees and $425,000 in fees to play sports rather than having those costs paid by families for the 2021-2022 academic year. If it is determined that funds cannot be used for that purpose, the fees will be reinstated.

When Polun initially brought up the idea of using the ESSER II funds to pay for additional elementary school sections – an estimated six teachers are deemed extra in part because COVID-19 protocols require smaller class sizes and extra resources – Moore noted that while it could be done, “every bit we move from ESSER directly goes away from everything we can do over the next couple of years.”

The district is expecting a large influx of kindergartners next fall, which would have led to a need for more elementary teachers anyway, and Moore’s budget also anticipated smaller classes due to COVID. “This year we are consciously proposing more classes than we otherwise would have,” Moore said, but he also cautioned against “chewing into the ESSER funds.”

Without applying the funds to any of the extra teachers, due to the health and medical plan savings and use of funds for the nutrition services deficit, West Hartford Public Schools would have had a spending increase of 1.95%, which is less than other nearby communities, Moore said.

Both Republican Board members favored use of the ESSER II funds for some, if not all, of the extra teachers.

Several of the Democrats, including a number who have backgrounds in psychology and social work, voiced a preference for keeping significant federal funds available to be used for mental health and other issues that haven’t even been quantified or even realized yet.

Wilcox suggested a “but for” approach: “But for COVID” why wouldn’t we put them under the COVID relief act,” she said. “I think that’s what’s fair to the taxpayers of West Hartford, and I think that’s what these funds are being awarded for.”

In future years, if additional teaching positions are needed, that can be revisited, she said, but at least this year the Board can offer a lower budget.

Zydanowicz said the district has never before had the opportunity to receive this type of federal funding, and while he had not previously heard of Wilcox’s “but for” approach, “I kind of like it. It makes sense to me,” he said.

“We have a real opportunity to save money for the taxpayers and then re-evaluate those positions three years from now … it’s an opportunity we have never seen before,” he said. “I think that’s how [the American Rescue Plan] was intended.”

Steinberg expressed a different view of the value of the ESSER II and American Rescue Plan funds. “When I think of the federal funds, they will be available for us at the end of the day for some purpose. Why wouldn’t we ask the town to support education and present them with the budget that we’ve created?” she said, a budget the Board feels is fair and fit.

Neighboring towns that are proposing increases “get the picture,” she said. “This is the year we should fight. … I feel very strongly that this is not an extravagant budget,” Steinberg said, and if it’s not accepted by the Town Council, then the federal funds could be used.

Zydanowicz said the Board’s three roles are to present a budget, present policy, and hire a superintendent. “I know we are going to have to come back with concessions,” he said, and the federal funds provide the opportunity to have a great budget for the taxpayers without taking things away. “If we can present a budget that Tom [Moore] is asking for and with the tools he needs but using federal funds because of COVID.”

Moore countered that he didn’t include in his original proposal the extra services that will ultimately be needed to recover from COVID. The budget “doesn’t provide the tools I need. If not for ESSER, the budget would have been much higher,” he said.

Several motions were considered before the Board finally voted, 4-3, to use ESSER II funds for two elementary school teachers.

Polun withdrew her initial proposal to fund three teachers after it didn’t get a second.

Zydanowicz wanted to use ESSER II funds for all six extra elementary school teachers, which would have pulled roughly $518,000 out of the budget, but he proposed four as a compromise. The number of teachers needed is reevaluated each year anyway, and while this approach would save money this year, he said he was not proposing “taking any arrows out of Tom’s quiver. … If we need 10 additional teachers come a year or two from now we’re going to need them. That’s all there is to it.”

He also said he wants to be sure that if the federal funds are available, they get used.

Aronson said Board members, while all residents of the town, need to remember which seat they are sitting in. “I’m in a Board of Education seat and I am charged with looking after education,” she said, adding that she is very hesitant to take anything out of our the regular budget that the superintendent put in because she doesn’t have confidence that the the schools will ever get that funding back.

The ESSER funds can get eroded very fast, she said, and it’s the role of the Town Council to determine how much they will allocate for education.

“We need to look after the kids, and they need to look after the whole picture,” Aronson said. She also said there are immense mental health needs that will need to be addressed.

Chang said needs may arise in the future where the ESSER money is really needed. Rather than spending it on the extra teachers, he said, “Look at that funding as a kind of insurance to the taxpayer that when we go down the road and we see problems we are able to act on them.”

Seeing that he didn’t have the votes, Zydanowicz withdrew his motion for using ESSER II funds for four teachers, and Polun reintroduced her motion of using the funds for three teachers. It failed on a 3-4 roll call vote.

A compromise on using the funds for two teachers, proposed by Steinberg, passed 6-1, with Aronson opposing.

The proposal by Polun to waive activity fees of $25 per student and pay-to-play fees of $175 per sport ($700 cap per family) for next year, and instead fund these programs through the American Rescue Plan Act, does not impact the budget directly, but would use up $450,000 of the available funds for each year a waiver is in place.

Polun said that it will be more important than ever to have students involved in extracurricular activities heading into the next school year, and removing the fees will eliminate barriers.

Moore said that while he doesn’t like the pay-to-play concept, once it’s there, removing it will create a problem once it has to be reinstated. He said that this year there were 102 students at Hall and 112 students at Conard who requested waivers of the fees, and all were granted. “We try to make it clear that cost is not a barrier to participate,” he said.

Automatically waiving the cost of sports and extracurricular participation to those who qualify for free or reduced lunch is not possible, Moore said, because that information cannot be shared with the athletic department.

Alternatives brought up by Board members – like funding sports through donations, sliding scales for different sports, and voluntary registration fees – all bring their own set of issues, Moore said.

Thomas-Farquharson said she favored finding as many ways as possible for students to be involved. “If there is the opportunity at least for a year to give households an opportunity for children to participate without the extra expense, I support that,” she said.

She voted in favor of using federal funds in order to encourage extracurricular and sports participation, as did Polun, Wilcox, and Zydanowicz. Aronson, Chang, and Steinberg voted against the plan, which passed 4-3. The district is awaiting guidance to confirm that American Rescue Plan Act funds can be used for this purpose.

“Your patience and support this year has been so remarkable,” Deb said to the families

“I think we have tried to tease out what we can pay for, with what funding, but always with the knowledge that those of us who have been elected to serve on the Board of Education are trying to do our best for our students and families in town,” Polun said. “All with goal of helping our children succeed through our schools and succeed in life.”

The approved $175,556,055 Board of Education budget will become part of the town’s overall General Fund budget.

The Town Council has one remaining public hearing on the budget, scheduled for Thursday, April 8, at 6 p.m., with the link to the virtual event available on the town’s website. The budget is scheduled to be adopted on April 22.

The Council can adjust the Board’s overall budget, but cannot make line item changes. Should changes be made, the Board would then need to determine how they are allocated.

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