Stratford Mayor John A. Harkins had asked school officials to put together a budget for next year as close to a zero percent increase as possible.
In talks with the superintendent and school board chairman, Harkins also requested that the budget include a $250,000 contribution to a retirement fund which, if left unfunded, can have a negative effect on the town's ability to secure bonds for construction projects.
"With an aging infrastructure the bond rating is important," said school board member Andrea Veilleux. "I'm happy to include it."
And so the Board of Education did, approving a $94,030,529 budget Thursday night that included the $250K appropriation. The proposed budget is a .67 percent increase from this year's school budget, which equates to a dollar amount of $628,347.
The budget will now head to Mayor Harkins, who will either accept the final number and send it to the Town Council or reject the budget and send it back to the school board.
At a budget committee meeting on Monday, Board of Education Chairman Gavin Forrester said he would not feel "comfortable" forwarding to the mayor a budget with over a .5 percent increase. On Thursday, however, he said the mayor would have "a profound degree of disappointment" if the $250,000 retirement fund allocation wasn't included in the budget.
The $250K was the last item voted into the budget, added minutes before the board unanimously voted to approve it.
The quarter-million-dollar contribution is for something called the other post-retirement benefits (OPEB) fund. Michael Feeney, the school board's chief operating officer, said the OPEB fund has the same concept as a pension, and it covers the health insurance of both certified and non-certified employees.
Superintendent Irene Cornish -- whose budget proposal three weeks ago did not include OPEB funding -- explained further: "OPEB is your liability, your obligation. If everyone covered under [the school's health insurance] were to all retire tomorrow, this is how much money the town would need to fund that obligation. That's your potential liability."
Cornish said the school board has never funded the OPEB in the two years the town has asked it to. Feeney said it has been pay-as-you-go. The problem with a completely unfunded OPEB fund, school and town officials agree, is that it can lead to a bond-rating downgrade for the town.
'STEPPING UP TO THE PLATE'
"You don't gamble with finances, with the future," Forrester said. "I feel good that if any financial rating agency looks at the school board they [will] see we are stepping up to the plate."
Forrester said the OPEB fund will still be vastly underfunded -- the potential liability on the school's side is $5.7 million -- but even minimal funding is better than an empty account.
And while school officials have their fingers crossed for an additional $576,000 in funding under a school reform proposal by Governor Malloy, Forrester said waiting for that cash to come in would not show that the school board was serious about contributing to OPEB.
INSIDE THE BUDGET
The $94 million budget includes $22 million in state funding.
It adds an administrative assistant to be split between Nichols and Wilcoxson elementary schools, as well as a nurse's aid at Second Hill Lane Elementary School. Under the proposed budget, the world language program would be offered to sixth-graders and there would be no cuts to athletic programs.
Savings would be accomplished through the reduction of a third-grade teacher at Chapel Street Elementary School; a one-year freeze on funding for library books ($100,000); and consolidating transportation costs for Nichols and Lordship elementary schools by changing the start time of Lordship to match Nichols ($200,000).
Also, the town’s agreement with the Honeywell Corp. is expected to save the school board $125,000 in energy costs.
GRANT-FUNDED TUTORS GONE
One of the items cut from the budget was $87,000 for three English language learner (ELL) teachers.
"This is one item I wish we can find a way to get back in," David Kennedy said during the budget committee's meeting before the school board met. "To me, the $87,000 is a relatively small amount in the whole scope of the budget."
Kennedy said there are many ELL students in Stratford, making it a vulnerable situation if there is a shortage of ELL teachers.
Cornish explained that the three tutors were part of 18 that the town was able to pay for through grant money acquired by the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009. She said all tutors hired with the funding will soon have to be let go.
"We made a conscious decision two years ago to take the money and put toward professional development and tutors," Cornish said. She said if the money went to teachers' salaries instead, the general fund would have had to pick up the wages when the funds ran empty. "We always knew when the funds go, we wouldn't be able to support this."
She added, "We are working on a plan to eke out some money to pay for this. Our largest ELL population is at Second Hill." Cornish said the tutors established a foundation and now is the time to get creative. However, a few tutors were able to be included in the budget through other grants, she said.
If Malloy's increased funding to Stratford schools comes to fruition, it can be used for aides in early education, Forrester said.
As of right now, there is no threat to close a school.
The mayor should be getting back to the school board on its proposed budget by Feb. 21.
What do you think of the proposed school budget? Tell us in the comments.