The Board of Education will likely request a $10 million dollar budget increase from the city — a bump that reflects the challenge of maintaining current services with diminished revenue.
Reeling from cuts in state funding and the expiration of federal grants, the school system is projecting it will need $207 million in its general fund next year. That figure reflects a $19.3 million increase, 10 percent higher than last year. Central office staff are hoping the city will come up with half, while they trim the rest in personnel expenses.
Will Clark, the district’s chief operating officer, offered that info at Monday night’s Board of Education (BOE) Finance & Operations Committee (F&O) meeting at 54 Meadow St.
“We basically need to find cost reductions or more revenue,” he said.
The school system gets most of its operational funds from the state, but it relies on city taxpayers to make up the difference. Last year, the state sent $148 million in aid, and the city kicked in $40 million. (The alders argue that they also pay for in-kind support with nurses, crossing guards, police and other routine services, like payroll or procurement.) But that was less than the Board of Education said it needed for basic operations. The alders knocked down a requested $8 million hike, and they sequestered part of what they did give, despite a mayoral veto.
Those restrictions were part of a long tug-of-war over who controls school finances. Unlike with other city departments, the alders get only one chance each year to vote up or down on the entire education allotment, with no line-item authority. The Board of Education, a state-chartered entity, crafts the detailed budget on its own.
Now the Board of Education faces an uphill battle to get its books in order. The school system needs to balance this year’s budget, which is currently $7.9 million in the red, over the next five months. Then it needs to secure more than twice as much money for next year.
If the cash-strapped city can’t pay its share, the district will have to scrounge up whatever money it can and cut the rest, Clark said. That could mean an end to programs that have been sustained by grants, if board members give the go-ahead.
The district is entering a rough patch largely due to the loss of revenue from Hartford and Washington, according to Clark.
In the state legislature, with some leverage from a (recently overturned) court challenge about how schools get funded, New Haven’s legislative delegation was able to preserve the largest chunk of money for next year. The state Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula, which attempts to make up the difference between the cost of instruction and local governments’ abilities to pay themselves, will stay even for the Elm City, while other towns took a 5 percent cut. But even flat funding puts the district behind with inflation, Clark pointed out.
Other line items in the state budget continue to shrink. Just last week, Clark said, he found out that funds for magnet schools are going down by as much as 7.5 percent, pending an enrollment audit. Other cuts could be on the way to special education reimbursements and school turnaround grants.
A major federal award, the five-year, $53.4 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant, also ran out this year. That grant paid some salaries that now must be moved over to the general fund, and it offered stipends for extra work the district must now do without. In total, those personnel costs are expected to add $3 million to the operational budget next year.
Those changes are occurring as the district’s other costs continue to rise. Special education students’ needs, particularly tuition to external providers mandated by their plan, is skyrocketing, up at least another $3 million next year. And inflation is sending the price of transportation and utilities up $2 million too.
To offset the deficit this year, Clark said, the district is already halting all non-essential hiring without an available funding source and a demonstrated need, deferring facilities work except for health and safety needs, switching over to LED lights to save on utilities, and maximizing the dwindling grant funds.
Up ahead next year, Clark went on, the district will consolidate programs ($2.75 million), right-size instructional staff to focus on core academics ($2.5 million), reduce non-instructional staff ($500,000), continue reducing electricity costs ($250,000) and maximize magnet enrollment ($1 million). The district might also look for other sustainable revenue sources, ask the union for concessions and further consolidate the district’s offerings.
Clark said he hopes local taxpayers will be able to cover the other half of what they need.
Darnell Goldson, the board’s newly elected president, asked if City Hall would be surprised by the $10 million figure. “Uh, no,” Clark said, after a moment’s hesitation. “But they’re not suggesting that number, to be fair. I’ve said it; they have not said it back to me.”
Goldson thanked him for the preliminary staff report, and added that he wanted to hear more from constituents about whether the numbers reflected their priorities. With a budget due at month’s end, he said, the draft was being presented pretty late.
“Why don’t we get [a budget report] on a monthly basis?” he asked.
Clark said he’s discussing plans with Carol Birks, the new superintendent who starts the job next month, and city officials to provide more regular updates. “We’re discussing the best format,” he said.
“Anything is better than now. I just want to see some numbers.” Goldson replied. “Since I’ve been on the board, the lack of financial planning puts us behind the eight ball. We don’t find out until a week before we approve the next budget. We really have to tighten that up.”
The board is expected to discuss the budget at its regular meeting next Monday, then vote on a draft version two weeks later. That goes over to the mayor’s office, where the school district’s numbers will be wrapped into all municipal expenditures and sent to alders as a package for a final vote.