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Danbury schools eyeing $7.3 million budget increase

January 10, 2019

DANBURY — Public school leaders estimate they will need an additional $7.3 million in their next budget to cope with continued enrollment growth and to restore program cuts.

The extra money would push the budget to more than $139.5 million, if approved in full, or a nearly 5.6 percent increase over the district’s current budget, according to initial projections presented Wednesday night.

But the millions of additional dollars are designed simply to keep pace with the district’s 16 consecutive years of enrollment growth and the physical expansion of its campuses this year, including the 26-classroom freshman wing at Danbury High School and eight modular classrooms at Westside Middle School Academy.

“That’s 5.5 percent that could be way higher,” school board chairman Pat Johnston said. “This keeps us about status quo, barely, and basically gets us even with the huge growth we’ve seen. I mean, we built almost three-quarters of an entire school this year.”

The projected increase sets the stage for another debate this spring in which the district expects to receive additional funding from the City Council, which determines the district’s total budget, but not all of its requested increase.

It’s a ritual back-and-forth that has played out each year over the past decade — the district typically proposes a $5 million to $7 million increase to handle its growing student population, only to receive one-third or one-half of its request from Mayor Mark Boughton and the council.

The same thing happened last year when the district asked for a $7 million increase and instead received a $4 million bump.

Two years ago, the district asked for a $5.7 million increase and ultimately received an extra $2.2 million.

A final school district budget proposal is due to the mayor in mid-February just before Gov. Ned Lamont unveils his state budget, including any potential changes to state funding that flows to local districts, so Boughton said it was too early to say for sure how much the district might expect to receive.

“We always do the best we can, but it’s very difficult out there right now,” Boughton said. “The state revenue has declined dramatically and that’s putting tremendous pressure our local taxpayers. We have to balance that.”

The bulk of the district’s projected increase comes on the back of about $3.3 million in contractual raises for teachers, tutors, paraprofessionals and staff.

Combined with $1.2 million in increases to district health insurance — a relatively small 4.8 percent increase over last year’s costs — and hikes to utilties, transportation and service rates, district staff estimate about $5 million in strictly baseline cost increases, finance director Joe Martino said.

Another $2 million would fund the addition of about two dozen staff members at every school level, including five new teachers for the expanded high school, an additional high school counselor, two bilingual teachers, three new special education teachers and reading and math coaches.

“It’s not a final, final number, but it’s close what it’s going to look like,” Martino said. “The biggest challenge I think folks have heard me complain about is, as we add (staff) at the beginning of the year, we have this compound effect that rolls over.”

A $500,000 boon should be headed to the district this year, though, under a new plan by Boughton and city staff to charge a so-called “student impact fee” to the group redeveloping the Matrix Corporate Center into a new mixed-use development, including hundreds of new apartments. The fee is designed to help defray the costs of any additional students that the new units could bring to an already overburdened district, Boughton and school leaders have agreed.

But as much as that might help absorb some of the increases, officials are still holding their breath for the upcoming state budget.

“This is a brand new budget going forward at the state, so we’ll see a two-year budget from them,” Martino said. “Big question marks on what that looks like.”

zach.murdock@hearstmediact.com

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