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Schools Face $3.5M Budget Hole

by Melissa Bailey | Dec 10, 2013 12:34 pm

(5) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Schools

Melissa Bailey Photo The new superintendent has put an end to free food at school staff meetings—and is looking for $3.5 million more in savings and extra revenue—to close a budget gap he inherited upon becoming schools chief.

The superintendent, Garth Harries, announced that news Monday at the school board’s regular meeting at Hill Regional Career High School.

Shortly after becoming superintendent in July, Harries confronted what he termed a surprise structural deficit: For two years in a row, cost-cutting efforts had left the district $3.5 million in the red. He set about scrambling to find savings before the year started, including eliminating the middle school grades from Lincoln-Bassett and MicroSociety schools. Harries eliminated teaching positions, but he found the savings without laying anybody off.

On Monday, he announced that after the cost-cutting efforts, the school district now has a deficit of $3,458,940 in its $177.2 million operating budget.

Wait ... wasn’t that the size of the original deficit?

No, Harries explained.

The school board actually approved a budget that had a $9.4 million hole. It approved a “budget initiative,” a plan to find cost-cutting measures an extra revenue to make ends meet by the end of the year.

The other $3.5 million budget hole he has been talking about refers to the structural deficit—the amount of deficit that the school district has been stuck with for two consecutive years, indicating a systemic problem.

Nearly halfway through the fiscal year, the school district has whittled down the projected deficit down to $3.5 million so far, Harries said.

Of the $3.5 million remaining deficit, $2.2 million comes from personnel costs. Another $1.2 million comes from non-personnel costs, such as transportation and special ed instruction.

Board member Alex Johnston thanked Harries for the update. Previously, board members did not receive regular financial reports.

Johnston noted that in order to close the gap, the district has a long way to go: finding $3.5 million savings in seven months is like finding $7 million over the course of a year. The full-time personnel budget is projected to be $1.1 million over-budget, for example. He predicted that gap could not be closed without letting people go.

Harries replied that the district hopes to close its deficit not through drastic cuts, but mostly by finding extra revenue. He said the budget-closing plan will be roughly two-thirds extra revenue, and one-third cuts.

Programs on the potential chopping block include daycare for infants and toddlers, Harries said at a previous meeting.

Harries declined Monday to name any specific cuts, except for one area: food.

Brown-Bagging

On Nov. 5, he issued a letter to school administrators announcing a new policy: No more free food at staff meetings.

Effective Nov. 12, 2013, he wrote, all schools and departments should limit purchases to essential items needed to support instruction and student services.

“Specifically, we ask that you refrain from submitting purchase orders for food for meetings and workshops for staff,” Harries wrote. “While I regret not being able to provide this small courtesy to our many valued professionals, we are in a time when we need to preserve resources for true instructional purposes.”

“We will also scrutinize travel closely, limiting trips, and when trips happen, limiting participants,” Harries continued.

Harries circulated the memo at the school board meeting.

Johnston suggested that in light of the memo, the school board revisit its policy of buying food for board members at its meetings.

Before Johnston spoke, Board President Carlos Torre had been picking away at a plate of melon from the biweekly food buffet. The dinner offerings have become more modest than in the past. Chief Operating Officer Will Clark said the food comes from the school district central kitchen, which prepares daily meals for 20,000 kids.

Each board dinner costs $70, totaling $1,680.00 for the year if all 24 meetings take place, according to a memo from the food services department, which bills the school board for the food.

On Monday, the district put out a pan of baked ziti—vegetarian, to meet the board president’s dietary restriction—as well as fruit, bread sticks and salad. Johnston refrained from indulging. As the meeting wrapped up, administrative staff and some children dug into the remaining supplies. Board member Susan Samuels wrapped up some pasta in a to-go plate.

Harries munched on a couple of soft bread sticks while chatting with Torre about the district’s efforts to recruit more minorities to administrative roles.

Harries said it’s worth reviewing the practice of offering food at school board meetings. While the food doesn’t cost a lot, he said, “it becomes symbolic.”

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posted by: speakingthetruth on December 10, 2013  1:30pm

How about the Superintendent taking a pay cut to close some of the gap? Does anyone think that will happen?  School in session on snowy/icy day like today is dangerous, unnecessary TEVAL procedure, treating the school system like a business…whats next?!  Remember that the teachers are on the front line day in and day out with kids who don’t exactly come from the best home situations.  The least you can do is offer up a $70 meal per meeting to keep people awake and compliant.

posted by: Noteworthy on December 10, 2013  2:24pm

Fire the entire school board - volunteer or not. This is what happens when you have a See No Evil, Hear No Evil mindset that questions nothing, that demands nothing and rubberstamps what they are given. Why did Harries not reveal the full extent of the budget deficit? The entire $9 million? And why wait so far in the school year? And this is after taxpayers were forced to take an increase in property taxes in order to give the school board millions more in revenue. The chickens are coming home to roost and they’re burnt. Name another school for Mayo and design some more $85 million schools ... keep living large!

posted by: FacChec on December 10, 2013  4:11pm

In order to have confidence in the numbers cost cutting/savings game that Harries is playing, he first has to be transparent and accountable to his own board.
According to Board member Alex Johnston,  Previously board members did not receive regular financial reports.

Therefore, it is highly questionable just what fiscal year harries is talking about. The BOE finished the 11/12 budget year with a $3.5M deficit in food service alone. The BOE finished the 12/13 fiscal with a $555K deficit in the general fund, together with a $3.4M food service and a $1.6M daycare deficit.

Before, Harries can justify the deficits, he first has to report accurate revenue, the city contribution is not 177M, it is $181M (including new alliance funding) for year 13/14. In addition, the State of CT increased the education cost sharing grant by $4M, which Harries does not include in his $177M number. 

The Moral of the stories is that numbers don’t lie, superintendents tell stories without accurate monthly reports to the board to back it up.

posted by: Bill Saunders on December 10, 2013  5:07pm

The Noodle Casserole looks Yummy!

posted by: Westville voter on December 10, 2013  8:52pm

Why has there been no demand for a complete, transparent, external audit of the BOE? When an entity that consumes this much tax money is totally unaccountable to the voters and can’t even get its numbers straight, something is seriously wrong. It’s time to send in the forensic accountants. I suspect that they will find all sorts of interesting, possibly illegal things. The fact that the BOA keeps rubber-stamping the BOE’s bloated budget speaks volumes. It is time for serious accountability! Call your alders, scream at them until they respond! (I’ve screamed at mine, he refuses to act. I’ll keep screaming.) This is pathetic!

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