For the first time ever, Board of Education representatives officially took part in a Town Council meeting, conducting a detailed discussion of the . The education budget represents nearly 60 percent of the overall .
"West Hartford Public Schools is a complex organization. We are a high-performing organization and we appreciate that you recognize that. We think we’ve had some extraordinary results over the past couple of years,” board Chairman Bruce Putterman said. He showed council members graphs indicating how the schools have continued to set new records with CMTs, CAPT, and AP exams over the past few years, and at the same time have also been closing the achievement gap.
Putterman went through each budget component in detail, explaining that, “Our budget is essentially a roll forward budget,” with only .04 percent of the proposed increase coming from program changes.
“Salaries are a main driver,” he said. However, all teachers are currently teaching this year without an increase – a hard freeze with neither a step increase nor a general wage increase. According to the negotiated contract, teachers will get only a step increase the following year.
Other significant budget drivers are medical expenses and pension costs. However, from a percentage increase perspective, tuition costs — which are rising by 50 percent — are a major budget driver. Tuition increases are caused by an increase in the number of West Hartford students attending interdistrict magnet schools (40 additional students, at a cost of $3,700 each) as well as outplacement costs for special education.
Several years ago the state reimbursed towns for the entire excess cost of out-of-district special education expenses. This year only 75 percent of excess costs were reimbursed, and the projection is that only 62 percent will be reimbursed in the next fiscal year. That could add more than $500,000 to the 2012-2013 budget.
Programming changes result in a net increase of approximately $50,000, the non-roll forward portion of the budget. Overall enrollment is relatively steady, and results in one less position at the elementary level. However, Putterman said that a "large cohort of 8th graders at Sedgwick" will increase Conard's student body by 87 next year, requiring three extra positions.
Putterman said that the education budget for "miscellaneous items" has been reduced by 21 percent. “We’ve been sensitive and responsive. There just aren’t many efficiencies to wring out of the budget this year. We want to keep delivering great results.”
"There’s not a lot left that’s not going to effect the instruction and education of the whole child," Putterman said in response to a question from Mayor Scott Slifka about where cuts would have to come from. He pointed out that we have already eliminated K-2 world language instruction, we are behind other comparable schools in updating technology, students already pay to participate in sports and other extracurriculars, and the district has consolidated the middle school program for at risk kids.
Katz said, “Anything we do at this point directly impacts families, directly impacts students.”
Minority Leader Denise Hall asked about outsourcing the custodial staff, which has resulted in cost savings for other school districts. Putterman said that could not be discussed right now due to ongoing arbitration.
Council members also asked about budget reductions in the area of energy efficiency, and medical expenses, and the need for implementing WiFi and other upgrades to technology.
Slifka and Deputy Mayor Shari Cantor reported that they have met with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to address the issue of Educational Cost Sharing (ECS). It is estimated that West Hartford's shortfall is a staggering $41 million for this year alone.
"If you even got 50 percent of the $41 million shortfall, we wouldn’t be asking for any tax increases this year," said council member Burke Doar.
Slifka does not anticipate any changes in ECS for this budget, but he said, "We’re hoping there could be some hope in October of this year," once the governor's task force issues its report.