Meriden school officials prepare for budget cuts with $1.3 million funding gap

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MERIDEN — A $215.47 million spending plan the City Council voted to approve earlier this week increases overall city spending by more than 3.1%, but not all those increases are uniform — Board of Education officials say they will likely need to consider staffing cuts when they review the numbers this month. 

The overall budget, should it be finalized, includes a $103.18 million allocation for the school district.

While that figure represents a $1 million increase over the school district’s current allocation, it is still around $1.3 million short of funding the budget the Board of Education put forth earlier in the spring. That budget, officials said, maintained the district’s current levels of staffing and programs for students without adding new staff or programs. 

Michael Grove, Meriden Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said on Wednesday that district officials will work with the Board of Education’s finance committee on May 30 to determine where cuts in the upcoming budget will be made. 

“At this time, there’s nothing set,” Grove said. “We’re still working through the process.” 

Grove said the cuts will come across all lines of the board’s budget, and will include staffing reductions. 

“What I can say is the district has always worked to look at all unoccupied positions first,” Grove said. “We’re hopeful that we don’t see any layoffs.”

Meriden Federation of Teachers union President Lauren Mancini-Averitt said the board’s budget is one that is “90%” people. 

“So in order to cut the money we requested, you’re looking at reallocating staff,” Mancini-Averitt said. “MFT members who have retired won’t be replaced.”

That also means teachers and other staff working on one-year contracts and other short-term agreements have already received notice that those pacts won’t be renewed. 

“That allows them to apply to any district that has openings,” Mancini-Averitt said. 

Finding a way to close a more than $1 million shortfall means leaders will need to get creative, Mancini-Averitt said, describing the district as one in which Board of Education members, district leaders and union leaders work as a team. “We’re looking at moving teachers…. We’re probably looking at increased class sizes. 

“It’s abysmal. It’s going to be difficult. We’re going to have to make a lot of hard decisions,” she said. 

The potential cuts come at a time when educators and families continue to face challenges.

“Our students are still recovering from the pandemic. We have discipline problems. We have to address all of that,” Mancini-Averitt said.

Board officials learned their final budget number on Monday. Meanwhile, the exact amount of funding the district will receive from the state has yet to be determined, with lawmakers still deliberating on the statewide budget. 

Statewide figures, reported by the State Department of Education as well as by non-profit policy organizations like the State + School Finance Project, all show Meriden ranking in the bottom tier of municipalities, based on how much funding it allocates towards schools on a per-pupil basis. Meriden’s spending per pupil during the 2021-2022 school year was $15,680, just a notch above Danbury. By comparison, Southington’s per-pupil spending that year was $17,102. Wallingford’s figure was $20,898.

Board of Education President Rob Kosienski Jr. largely echoed Mancini-Averitt in saying the board’s budget and programs “are made up of people.” 

“Any cut means a cut in staff,” Kosienski said, noting the board needs to honor the wage increases staff members are entitled to, per their union contracts. 

“We have to make sure we honor our contracts. We have to make sure we take care of our employees — what we bargained for and what they’re expecting,” Kosienski said. “Our community expects to have schools that are staffed with highly trained, accomplished teachers. They expect a curriculum that’s strong and challenges our students.”

During City Council Finance Committee meeting discussions on the overall budget proposal a week ago, conservative councilors proposed reducing the Board of Education’s $1 million increase in funding by half. 

Councilor Michael Carabetta, who made the motion for the cut, questioned at the time why the city would increase that spending by $1 million if local leaders still don’t know how much additional state funding, through the Education Cost Sharing grant, it will receive. 

“What’s the million dollars for?” Carabetta asked during the April 25 meeting. “What specific line items is it going for?”

He continued that the city gives a “blank check” to the board with “no accountability for it,” adding the board should make cuts from the top. 

Councilor Nicole Tomassetti, who chairs the Finance Committee, and Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona disagreed. 

Cardona, in response, said he believes underfunding the Board of Education “costs us as a community.” The proposed spending level is still more than $1 million short of the board’s ask. 

During the exchange that followed, Councilor Dan Brunet suggested the city’s per-pupil education spending levels probably appear lower than most communities because the in-kind services provided, like school resource officers and crossing guards, are not factored into the board’s budget. 

Tomassetti disputed that, saying that per-pupil expense is actually set by state statute. 

“There’s no room for interpretation as you’re describing. No mix and match,” she said. 

It was at this point that Mayor Kevin Scarpati interjected, asking why the city should seek to cut the funding level proposed. 

“We don’t know what it’s going to impact,” he said, noting it could impact staffing levels and class sizes and the board has a need to provide additional services to students. 

“Now is not the time to be backing off,” Scarpati said. “We need to increase those efforts. This million does not increase those efforts. The request to make them whole is $2.3 million.”

Scarpati further stated the city needs to continue to enhance education as it’s the quality of schools, not the city’s tax rate that attracts families to move into the city. The mayor said the quality of education… is “going to yield us a much greater return.” 

“I absolutely oppose the reduction. And I would oppose any reduction to the Board of Ed increase,” said Scarpati, who under City Charter has veto power over the budget.

On Wednesday, Tomassetti told the Record-Journal she is both disappointed the city couldn’t provide more funding to the school district and “concerned about the potential cuts that could happen.”

“The last thing we need is less teachers, less climate staff,” Tomassetti said, adding that if the city gave the school department the same increases it gave to other city departments, schools would be “getting more money.”

Tomassetti said despite the fact that the city continues to rank “second to last” in per-pupil expenditures, the Board of Education and school district “do a great job with what they have.”

“They’re working very hard to provide our students what they need,” she said, adding with more funding, the school district “could do more and could provide more services to help more students.”



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