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School spending proposal with 3.8% boost unveiled for 2014-15

Photo by Genevieve Reilly

School Superintendent David Title has proposed a school budget for fiscal 2014-15 that is nearly 4 percent higher than the current one.

A $156.9 million Board of Education budget in 2014-15 has been proposed by Superintendent of Schools David Title, an increase of $5.7 million, or 3.78 percent, over this year's budget of $151.2 million.

In presenting his proposed budget to the school board Tuesday night, Title said the education budget over the past five fiscal years has had an average increase of 1.6 percent, which he said is below contracted salary and benefit increases for school district employees, as well as the average rate of inflation during that period. "We have been in cost-containment mode for the entire time I've been here," he said.

From 2002-03 to 2011-12, Title said Fairfield fell from 23rd to 62nd in per-pupil expenditures compared to the rest of Connecticut's school districts and now has the second-lowest per-pupil expenditure in southern Fairfield County.

Enrollment from 2004-05 to 2013-14 rose 17.5 percent, he said, while full-time staff increased 4.4 percent (largely due to a reduction in non-certified staff.) Title's proposed budget envisions six more staff members, nearly all of whom are non-certified paraprofessionals. Enrollment in the 2014-15 school year is projected to be one student higher -- from 10,250 to 10,251. Title said his proposed budget doesn't include any additional central office staff though their workload has increased because of state mandates.

Higher salaries and benefits for school employees account for $2.6 million, or 46 percent, of the proposed $5.7 million increase, while tuition for special education students who are placed out-of-district accounts for $1.3 million, or 23 percent, of the $5.7 million increase. "The big three here -- staff salaries, benefits and tuition," Title said. "Where's the money going? It goes into people by and large ... We are a labor-intensive organization."

The next largest increases in spending are:

- Operations and maintenance of buildings, accounting for $535,359, or 9.4 percent, of the $5.7 million increase. This category funds utility costs and maintenance expenses on school buildings.

- Contracted services, $482,225, or 8.4 percent, of the $5.7 million increase. This account funds, among other things, professional and technical services related to enrollment projections and legal services; and expenses related to school security.

- Capital expenses, $449,479, or 7.9 percent, of the $5.7 million increase. This category funds equipment and technology in the schools.

- Transportation, $378,199, or 6.6 percent, of the $5.7 million increase. This allocation covers the contract with First Student to operate school buses and also funds transportation for special education students placed outside the district.

"We really would like your support of this budget so we can continue our high-quality programs, address state and federal mandates and continue improving student achievement," Title said to school board members.

Title said one of his priorities in the next school year is to close the "achievement gap" by raising the performance of students who are on free or reduced-price lunches and those who don't speak English as their native language. He said 10 percent of Fairfield's students get free or reduced-price lunch and 2 percent are English Language Learners. "There's a gap everywhere and we need to address it," he said. "We're not a perfect school system. My goal is to improve it."

Title spent about half of his 20-minute presentation highlighting accomplishments of Fairfield's students in state-standardized tests and Advanced Placement courses. A document given to the public said Fairfield Ludlowe and Fairfield Warde high schools have been ranked in the top 4 percent of high schools in the nation for 2013 by U.S. News and World Report.

Title said Fairfield's athletic teams won five state championships and multiple conference championships in the past year and that the school district has a total of 140 clubs and service organizations. Read Full Article 

Title also addressed a projected $1.4 million shortfall in this fiscal year's budget that was mostly attributed to a higher-than-expected number of special-needs students placed in specialized programs outside of the school district. He said the shortfall potentially could be reduced by $300,000 to $500,000, but anticipates the school board would have to ask the town for additional money to balance the budget. "We're not going to be in a position at the present time to cover the entire projected deficit," he said.

Title said a "big unknown" is the amount the state would deem eligible as an "excess cost reimbursement" for special-education students. He said the school district only would receive that reimbursement if the cost of a special-education student's outside placement exceeds 4.5 times Fairfield's per-pupil expenditure. He added the federal government's budget sequester means the district wouldn't get about $150,000 to help close the gap.

Title said the school board in previous years had returned money to the town and that he had a productive meeting with the town's Board of Finance over the issue. "We're exploring all options with the town to see what might be possible because they are in a cooperative spirit on this," he said.

Title plans to hold a "brown bag lunch" to discuss his proposed 2014-15 budget with PTA members at noon Jan. 16 in the Education Center, 501 Kings Highway East, said Board of Education Chairman Philip Dwyer. The school board will discuss his proposed budget on Jan. 21 and 28 and then vote on it Jan. 30.

The budget adopted by the Board of Education will then be incorporated into First Selectman Michael Tetreau's proposed overall town spending package in February. The overall proposed town budget will then be subject to votes by the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance and Representative Town Meeting.

School board members, who received Title's proposed budget Tuesday night, didn't have much to say about the numbers, but a brief spat erupted over the format.

John Llewellyn, a school board member, requested Title's proposed budget in an Excel format so he and other board members could more easily analyze it.

Doreen Munsell, director of finance and business services, said only the executive summary is in Excel but mentioned another format the budget already is available in, which Llewellyn said is fine.

But Dwyer said Llewellyn has a pending state Freedom of Information complaint over the budget format that Llewellyn filed before being elected to the board in November. Dwyer said he didn't think it would be appropriate for the school board to deviate from the format until the complaint is resolved. "I think while that process is ongoing it would be a mistake," he said.

"For this year's budget, this is the format we agreed to present it," Dwyer said. But board Vice Chairman Paul Fattibene said he didn't remember the school board voting on a budget format and that he saw no harm in complying with Llewellyn's request.

"The only question is, `Does it exist and, if it does, is it available in that format?' " Fattibene said. "I have no recollection of a motion the budget will be presented in PDF format only." Dwyer replied, "Of course you can do that research if you wish" and moved on to other business.

Andrew Brophy

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