RIDGEFIELD Near miss for school deficit
RIDGEFIELD — The school district has managed to avoid a projected $1.3 million deficit, but board members want to know how such close-calls can be avoided in the future.
A report for the district’s year-end finances shows that it ended the last fiscal year with a surplus of about $158,000 instead of a deficit that earlier this year was projected to reach $1.3 million.
Its special education costs, which were largely the cause of the potential deficit, were still $1.36 million over budget, but a months-long spending freeze and savings in other areas offset the account.
Some Board of Education members wondered, though, whether an analysis of special education finances might reveal if investments in certain areas could avoid the high costs in the future.
“Our special education costs sort of continue to be an elephant in the room for us,” member Carina Borgia-Drake said Monday. “We don’t have a deep dive on that and then, when we go to prioritize our allocation of tax dollars, we don’t know where we should be doing that. That would be really helpful in budget season.”
Most of the deficit, first projected in September, had been the result of unexpected special education costs. The district received less special education funding from the state this year, had more settlements than originally projected and had to accomodate several families that moved to Ridgefield with special education students already enrolled at private institutions.
Ridgefield has budgeted substantially higher than neighboring towns for special education over the last several years and reducing the costs had been a focus of former Superintendent Karen Baldwin’s tenure.
Interim Superintendent JeanAnn Paddyfote, who took over in July, said Monday that a staff member in the special education department had been looking into analyzing the budgets, but changes in staffing stalled the process. That staff member left the department in the spring, director Kim Hapken retired over the summer and the new director will not take over until October, Paddyfote said.
She added that any analysis will need to take into account that information that reveals the identity of a student cannot legally be released.
“We’re not afraid to do the work, we just need the manpower to do it,” Paddyfote said. “We really have to do an analysis so you can see, was this an anomaly last year? I don’t really know until I see the data overtime.”
The potential deficit had also included the hiring of three extra elementary teachers due to an enrollment bump, increased electrical costs and weather-related emergencies.
The district had considered asking the Board of Finance for a special appropriation to close the gap, but by February, a spending freeze that had been put in place in September and personnel and healthcare savings began to drive the number down. The board decided in April not to ask for the appropriation.
The largest savings at the end of the year, $731,000 in benefits funding, were due to a new self-insurance model for the dental plan and lower claims than past years, Business Manager Dawn Norton said Monday. The schools were also able to save a combined $330,000 with the spending freeze.
Some board members asked, though, if the district could do a better job keeping track of what expenses are put off throughout the year -- either when there is a freeze or during the budget process.
“My question is: Is there something we did not fund -- something that we should have funded?” member Sharon D’Orso said. “This budget is closed, I understand that, but I think we need to make sure with future budgets when we do freeze things that we go back to look at what was not provided.”
Board Chair Fran Walton added that having a better handle on the budget earlier in the year could help avoid situations like last year, when it wasn’t clear until late spring whether an appropriation would be needed.