Stamford finance council sounds alarm over education budget ‘budget cliff’

A total of 120 positions at Stamford Schools, at a cost of around $8.8 million, are set to expire over the next two years as they are funded by short-term COVID-19 relief funds.

These positions – which include 19.5 kindergarten para-educator full-time equivalent positions, or FTEs, 23 parent facilitators, 21 technology integration specialists, 8.5 FTE teachers, and 27 security guards — are currently being paid through the second and third installments of federal aid funds. emergency for elementary and secondary schools, also known as ESSER II and ESSER III.

The second installment is expected to end once this school year is over. The third and largest portion of the funds will expire at the end of the 2023-2024 school year.

For the positions to remain intact after 2024, the district will have to find a way to pay for them.

Officials have called the phenomenon a “fiscal cliff”.

In a virtual Board of Finance meeting Thursday night, member Mary Lou Rinaldi said she expects the Board of Education to spend the majority of ESSER funds on capital projects, rather than use a large part of it to pay for the 120 posts.

In May, the Finance Council agreed to create a school building fund of approximately $20 million by increasing property taxes by 1%. Rinaldi expressed concern about the Board of Education’s involvement in school construction projects.

“It worries me because we have invested $20 million through our efforts and we were hoping that the (Education) Council would be an important partner in this and we were going to see the majority of…ESSER funds disbursed to stockpile for building and renovating schools,” she said.

Ryan Fealey, chief financial officer of Stamford Public Schools, responded that the district cannot store those funds because they expire at the end of the next school year. Additionally, ESSER funds can only be used for specific capital projects such as air quality improvements and windows and doors, for example.

The district has committed $10 million in ESSER dollars for capital projects this year and will likely use another $4 million next year for building improvements, he said.

Rinaldi said she remains concerned.

“At some point the funding is going away…and now the school board’s operating budget is going to explode, we’re going to fall off a cliff to now fund 120 positions with taxpayers’ money,” she said. declared.

Fealey said it’s unlikely all 120 positions will be funded from the operating budget once federal dollars dry up. He added that expected increases in wages, health care, transportation, utilities and possibly special education will also increase budget demand.

“ESSER positions are just one of many pressures to come,” he said.

At a Board of Education meeting last month, Fealey projected that the school district’s budget would increase about 5.3 percent each of the next two years if all positions were to be moved into the operating budget. This would be more than double the average operating budget increase of 2.5% per year over the past eight years.

Rinaldi warned she would not support a bigger raise.

“I want to say officially that I will not be in favor of a 6 or 7 percent increase in your operating budget next year or the year after,” she said. “There has to be some restraint, especially if the (Education) Board is serious about this long-term build. Something has to give.

In total, the district has received approximately $55.34 million in COVID-19 relief funds through various grants, with approximately $23.8 million remaining to be spent over the next two school years.

During the meeting, board members deliberated on two school-related appropriations: a request for $40,000 to update the district facilities master plan and $400,000 to fund the funding application process. government funding for four school construction projects.

The $40,000 item, which passed unanimously, is to update the district’s recently completed facilities master plan to reflect changes to the reimbursement rate the city receives from the state.

Under new rules, the state’s reimbursement rate for building new schools in Stamford will be 60% for the next 25 yearsmuch higher than the 20% rate the city used to get.

The new framework will provide significantly more funding for Stamford’s ambitious master plan to build or expand four schools, including a new K-8 school in South Stamford, and making improvements to many others. The the estimated cost of implementing the full plan is over $500 million over 12 years.

Council members, however, did not support the $400,000 allocation, opting to postpone it for a month.

The money would be used to fund the application process for construction projects at Turn of River Middle School, Rippowam Middle School, KT Murphy Elementary School and the 83 Lockwood Ave facility.

The last two buildings will be used to create a K-8 school south of Stamford distributed between the two campuses.

Members argued that it made little sense to fund the application process for all four sites before revising the facility master plan.

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