It was a school budget meeting where dollar figures were barely discussed.
The Ridgefield Board of Education on Wednesday kicked off its review of the preliminary 2013-2014 school budget with presentations from the principals from all nine schools, as well as the high school athletic director, who reviewed the major drivers of the increases in their respective operating budgets.
The 2013-2014 school budget, which was unveiled by Superintendent of School's Dr. Deborah Low on Jan. 14, currently stands at $83,906,427, an increase of 3.24%, or $2,636,954 over the current budget of $81,269,473.
Driving the budget increase are the usual culprits — negotiated wage increases for teachers and staff (up 3.05%), increases in benefits/insurance (up 5.43%), increases in health insurance premiums (up 5.35%), and moderate staffing requests, mostly to meet implementation of the State of Connecticut's Common Core Standards. (See attached budget summary)
Also contributing to the budget hike are increases in text books and consumables (up 152%), fixed costs (including utility costs), and investments in technology. The budget also includes , which are being beefed up in reaction to the recent school shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook School in Newtown. Also driving the increase is a request for an additional $300,000 for the special education budget to cover the cost of adding 5.49 FTEs (full time employees) based on IEPs (Individualized Education Programs).
Partially offsetting the budget increase are decreases in staff salaries resulting from turnover; a reduction in the need for substitutes; and savings on transportation costs through the recent signing of a contract with a new bus service provider. The school administration also avoided a much bigger hike in health insurance premiums through negotiations with another provider.
Factored into the budget request is a forecasted reduction in enrollment of 99 students. The district is anticipating a reduction of 81 students in the elementary schools and 37 students in the middle schools, offset by an increase of 19 students at the high school. Class sizes are so far mostly unaffected — however the board may exercise its option to modify class sizes in order to hold down the budget increase.
The principals' presentations primarily focused on how curriculum and program changes are driving the overall budget increase — however they did not necessarily tie the initiatives to hard dollar figures. In many respects the presentations were more like a review of "what's new at the schools" as opposed to an analysis of how those initiatives are driving the budget increase.
For example, several principals spoke in general about how implementation of the Common Core Standards has resulted in requests for additional staff training and support without providing figures showing the budget impact from the initiative. The presentations also included a review of past school accomplishments.
Principals and staff from the six elementary schools discussed the major factors driving the increases in the overall elementary budget, including a +0.20 Art/Library staff request for Farmingville School and a +2.56 staff request for lunch/recess/transportation supervisory professionals. Also driving the increase is the implementation of a new (yet-to-be-selected) elementary math program that will require an additional $135,000 for teacher and students resources, $35,000 for staff training and $38,000 in stipends for program leaders to offer additional support and training to staff. New initiatives in literacy programming and 21st Century Learning (i.e. technology facilitated learning) are also driving the increase in the elementary schools' budget.
Helping to drive the budget increase for the two middle schools is addressing the district priority in math and English instruction to align with the Common Core Standards and implementation of the state-mandated Student Success Plans for Grades 6-8. Also driving the budget increase at the middle schools is implementation of new technology initiatives, including the BYOD or "Bring Your Own Device" initiative, which requires the schools to beef up their network capacity in order to accommodate the multiplicative increase in the number of WiFi devices students will be bringing to school for educational purposes, as well as related curriculum changes.
Driving the increase at the high school are "textbook, equipment, supplies and staffing requests designed to maintain programs and comply with NEASC recommendations and state law." The high school budget includes an additional 1.6 FTEs to meet increased course load requirements and to supervise the new Reading Center. As with the two middle schools, expanded use of BYOD is also a budget increase driver at the high school.
The Board of Education will continue its review of the proposed 2013-2014 school budget on Monday, Jan. 28, when it will discuss the special education, personnel, health, general services, plant, transportation and food service budgets.
The budget review will continue on Jan. 30 with a discussion on the curriculum, instruction, and technology budgets.
The board is scheduled to hold public hearings on the proposed budget on Feb. 4 and Feb. 9, and will likely finalize the budget on Feb. 11 before sending it on to the Board of Finance and other town bodies for review and approval.