MERIDEN — School officials made their pitch to the City Council’s Finance Committee Thursday, requesting a $350,000 increase above the city manager’s $101.1 million budget.
The request would cover increases in health insurance, salaries, tuition and transportation.
School Superintendent Mark Benigni sought the $350,000 to cover an expected shortfall despite an anticipated $2.1 million increase in state Alliance District funding.
According to Benigni, only Danbury and New Britain spend less per pupil than Meriden. The city’s contribution to the schools has remained the same, despite improvements in academic achievement, attendance and graduation rates, he added.
“We are making it happen for our students with significantly less than other districts in the state,” Benigni told committee members. “It hasn’t changed in 10 years.”
City Manager Tim Coon included a $500,000 increase to city schools taking into account the closure of Our Lady of Mount Carmel School and a middle school program at Carver Academy. It is expected that many of those students would enroll in the public schools.
Some Finance Committee members asked about potential savings from the coronavirus-related school closure.
“Obviously we need a better effort to calculate any surplus in regards to the bus contract,” said Councilor Daniel Brunet, a Republican.
Brunet cited a headline in the Record-Journal stating that Wallingford had reported a $3.3 million surplus largely due to savings on its bus contract and out-of-town tuition payments.
Benigni replied that Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order states bus contracts need to be paid. Wallingford will eventually have to “hash that out,” he added.
When questioned Friday, Wallingford Superintendent of Schools Salvatore Menzo said school officials found savings in tuition and bus transportation that were unrelated to the closure. He added that Wallingford Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. was in talks with Wallingford’s school bus vendor Durham School Services about the contract.
“The governor’s orders say to pay the bus company based on practicability,” Dickinson said. “It’s not practical to be paying anybody if we’re not receiving a service. That’s a gift.”
Dickinson said he could understand if the town had an umbrella contract for the year with Durham but Wallingford’s contract is by the route.
“The routes aren’t being run,” Dickinson said. “No official has the authority to order anyone to be paid if they’re not providing a service.”
The governor’s directive calls for practicability in renegotiating contracts with bus companies, such as paying staff wages and benefits. Failure to do so could result in some risk of violating provisions in the federal CARES Act, the coronavirus stimulus bill.
The public schools expect 176 new students next fall as a result of the private school closures. Other budget drivers include a 7.2 percent increase in health insurance costs, salary increases and a $350,000 increase in out-of-district tuition, including Thomas Edison Magnet Middle School.
The Board of Education’s current year 2020 spending plan is $100,633,340. Coon’s proposed budget for 2021 is $101,155,190, a $521,850 increase.
Republican Councilor Michael Carabetta questioned whether the city could afford any increase in light of the impact the pandemic will have on city services and taxpayers.
Any savings estimates from closing the schools on March 13 are premature, Benigni said.
In addition to paying bus employees and full-time district employees, Lamont’s executive order also calls for paying out-of-district tuition, Benigni said.
Cost savings could come from substitute teaching, coaching, staff activities, utility costs and supplies.
Providing most of the district’s 8,500 students with a Chromebook to bring home could lead to increased costs. Food service costs could also increase as the schools have eight locations that feed students two meals a day, Benigni said.
There could also be increased need for social workers or counseling staff for students suffering post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression as a result of prolonged isolation. The budget proposal does not add or subtract any staff.
The district received praise from Democratic councilors Nicole Tomassetti, Bruce Fontanella, Michael Rohde, Michael Cardona and Miguel Castro. They asked Benigni what would happen if the district didn’t receive the additional $350,000.
“You’re going to need this money next year,” he said.