The school board voted to ask for an extra $5.3 million in city taxpayer money to keep the schools running next year—and prepared to make cuts if that money doesn’t come through.
By unanimous vote Monday night, the school board voted 5-0 to approve the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The overall proposal totals $396,524,351, a $4.5 million or 1 percent increase over the current budget year. That includes a $186 million operating budget, plus other costs—including medical benefits, debt service, pension and workers’ compensation—that the city pays for through other accounts.
The proposal includes a wishful $5.3 million increase to the $18.3 million “city contribution” to the operating budget—the amount that city taxpayers set aside directly for the schools.
Superintendent Garth Harries acknowledged Monday that Mayor Toni Harp and the Board of Alders, who determine the board’s operating budget, are likely to deny that request.
“We recognize that we may not get all of this,” said Harries.
He said the request aims to send a message: That’s how much the school system needs to maintain “baseline” costs with no new positions or initiatives.
The budget now passes to Harp, who is required to submit her own budget by March 1; aldermen then pass a budget based on her proposal.
In an interview with the Independent Friday, Harp said she would not approve a $5.3 million increase in city taxpayer contributions, but she is willing to give the school system a smaller increase. (Harp didn’t say how much. She didn’t attend Monday’s school board meeting because she was meeting with aldermen about the budget.)
The figure that’s likely to bear the brunt of attention during upcoming budget hearings is the $186 million proposed general fund budget for the schools, which would rise by $8,758,120 or 3 percent compared to this year. The vast majority of that money is paid for by state grants. The amount paid for by city taxpayers would be $23.6 million.
Harries said that budget represents the “baseline” amount of money required to maintain services and the same number of teachers in classrooms. The largest increases fall in personnel: Wages are rising for everyone from janitors to executive managers, which is boosting overall personnel costs from $179.7 million to $183.7 million (including positions paid for by outside grants). Transportation is going up from $16.9 million to $17.9 million.
Will Clark, the schools chief operating officer, said because of recent contract settlements, every school board employee is getting a raise this year. The school board is making use of a $53 million five-year federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant to pay for teachers and principals’ pay raises. But the school system is still facing extra costs in educator salaries, Clark said, because some outside grants that the district was using to pay salaries are expiring, forcing the district to shift those positions to its general operating budget.
The school district is expecting some relief from the state: New Haven is due to receive an extra $3.3 million in the Education Cost Sharing grant, the state’s main way of paying for schools, bringing the total to $150,438,559. However, that extra money can’t be counted on until legislators approve amendments to the biennial budget.
Even with the extra help from the state, there’s still a $5.3 million gap, Harries said.
Harries told his board members that Harp likely would not approve that entire $5.3 million increase, but that they should ask for it anyway.
“The reality is, we have done more with less consistently over the last six or so years,” Harries said. The district endured three years of flat-funding before seeing some increases from the state and city in 2012. The city increased its contribution by $1.2 million in fiscal year 2012-13 and by another $3 million the following year. The state came through with extra money—$3.8 million and $7.9 million—in those years as well.
Whether or not the city approves the $5.3 million increase, Harries said, the school system needs to prepare for cuts. To create any new initiative—such as one to help truant kids—the schools would have to cut from other places, he said.
Harries said the school system wants to avoid making last-minute cuts. Last year, Harries, who took office in July and inherited a $3.5 million structural deficit, created a stir by eliminating middle-school classrooms from two schools right before school started.
Harries said this year, he will come up with proposed cuts by June 1.
Board member Alex Johnston suggested the school district come up with a prioritized list of what cuts the schools would make first—and what it would not cut—to inform alders’ decision-making process as they consider the schools budget.
Harries replied that he did not want to negotiate specific cuts with alders, or end up in a situation where alders place specific demands on how the money is spent. Right now, alders simply vote on the overall general operating budget; they don’t have line-by-line control of school spending.
He stressed that Monday’s budget is a working proposal, not a finished product.
“This is the start of a process, both on the city’s side and the board’s side,” he said.