Michael Feeney, chief operations officer for the Stratford Board of Education, presented a revised budget to the Board of Education Finance Committee on Jan. 22. The bottom line: a 2.99% increase over the current operating budget.
Feeney’s presentation brings the proposal down to $96,804,974. That is $2,812,445 over the operating budget. Prior to the revision, the proposed budget stood at a 3.27% increase.
Key in the reduction is a projected 8% decrease in the cost of health insurance. A new carrier is out for bid and responses to requests for proposals are being reviewed. The budget projects a savings of $428,065.
One increase in spending that committee members found surprising was for transportation to magnet schools outside the district. To reduce the impact on its own budget, Bridgeport is now charging communities for the cost of getting students to and from the Wheeler and Discovery magnet schools.
“We did receive a letter from Bridgeport that the per-student cost is about $3,000 a year,” said Feeney. The state reimburses a portion of that expense to Bridgeport, but they are now asking the students’ home communities to pay the difference.
That comes to $89,700 for Stratford students attending Discovery and $69,000 for those going to Wheeler. Combined with cost increases related to other magnet schools, it will cost Stratford $1,045,807 to educate students attending classes in Bridgeport, Trumbull and Hamden. That is an increase of $209,213 over the current operating budget.
Some members of the committee questioned if it is a requirement that the town pay for transportation to out-of-district schools like Discovery and Wheeler. Bob David noted that there are other schools, magnet and private, for which the town pays the transportation costs.
“It would a tough argument for the Board of Education to pay for some of them but not all of them,” said David.
Feeney noted that $250,000 had to be added back into the Board of Education budget on the request of Mayor John Harkins. The funds are to cover Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) in the health care package. Under state law, OPEB does not need to be funded, but failure to do so would have a negative effect on the town’s bond rating. It was considered comparable to underfunding a pension plan.
The majority of the meeting was spent going through 878 line items in a budget index, noting reasons for various increases and reductions. One such increase would be an additional $66,005 to cover the salary for a new superintendent of schools. Last year, Dr. Irene Cornish announced her intention to retire this past December.
Feeney noted that in several areas, the district will save money by increasing staffing for special education and therapists. Currently, several services utilize outside professionals. Early Learning Services alone, which serves 110 students in the preschool population, would save the town $2,613,744 by hiring staff and remaining in district.
Another finance committee meeting was scheduled for Jan. 29, when it plans to review the revenue side of the budget. Board of Education Chairman Gavin Forrester noted that there were several items, such as questions on the magnet school transportation, that Feeney needed to report back on.
He also said there was a chance the budget would be out of committee before the Town Council voted on the teacher contract, which if altered or denied could affect the budget.
“The only way the contract can be rejected is by the Town Council by a two-thirds vote,” said Forrester. He isn’t sure when they will hold that vote but anticipates it could happen at the February meeting.