MERIDEN — Under the $208.87 million fiscal 2022-23 spending plan adopted by the City Council earlier this week, the Board of Education will see its funding request fully allocated.
City budget figures show $102.18 million in funding for the board. That full allocation came after some financial maneuvering, including no longer requiring the board to annually prefund a portion of its health insurance for school district employees.
That education funding figure includes a $1.67 million increase in local funding over the current year’s budget.
In past years’ budgets, local contributions had represented about 36% of the school district’s overall revenue. State funding, through the Education Cost Sharing and Alliance District grants, has accounted for more than half of the school district’s funds, with state budget figures showing the district is scheduled to receive more than $69.15 million in 2022-23. Meanwhile, federal funding has comprised more than 8% of the district’s overall funds.
Historically, Meriden has ranked within the bottom tier of school districts in terms of per pupil expenditures. For example, according to figures shared last month, Meriden’s average per pupil expenditure of $14,788 during the 2020-2021 school year ranked only above the lowest ranked school district, Danbury, which had expended $14,729 per pupil.
“This is just great news for our students, staff and families,” said School Superintendent Mark D. Benigni. “This is the first time in over 12 years we received a significant increase from the city.”
Benigni thanked city officials and the council “for putting forward a budget that truly recognizes” the importance of education.
“This budget will allow us to continue with all the current positions in our board funded budget. And it will also allow us to continue some positions that are grant-funded that will be with us the next two years. In particular, officials plan to focus on the district’s youngest learners, who were most greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
City officials acknowledged fully funding the board’s request was something long overdue.
“We’ve owed them for far too long,” said Mayor Kevin Scarpati, during the finance committee’s April 28 meeting.
City Councilor Yvette Cortez, who chairs the finance committee, said she was surprised to learn that in past years the board was using federal grants to fund its budget and not investing city funds.
“Federal grants are supposed to supplement, not replace, city funds,” Cortez said, adding that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it had become very clear that school district staff and students have “sacrificed a tremendous amount.”
Cortez and other council members asked city officials to determine where other concessions could be made to help fund the education budget. They included reductions in other areas of the proposed budget: no longer allocating funds for an assistant city manager or deputy tax assessor.
“We asked them to find a million dollars and that’s not an easy amount,” Cortez said, adding city officials “did a great job really prioritizing that.”
Cortez said for her, one of the biggest issues faced by the school system, in addition to meeting students’ academic needs, is addressing their behavioral health needs.
“We realize if our children’s mental health is not well, they cannot learn,” Cortez said, noting that recognizing this fact is no different than prior realizations that providing students with daily breakfasts and lunches are also important.
“The Board of Education is using their money very appropriately,” she said.
City Councilor Ray Oullet, a Republican who formerly sat on the board, similarly described the money as “absolutely well described and well needed.”
Michael Grove, the Meriden Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said district officials worked closely with City Manager Timothy Coon, Finance Director Kevin McNabola and Scarpati, to determine the amount of funding the district would need to “maintain all staff and services this year.”
“It’s a good move in the right direction,” Grove said. “This is one of the first years where we’re fully funded, and we’re not going back and making cuts and program reductions.”
Grove said in the past, officials would go back to reduce positions, which were oftentimes open due to retirements and resignations.
Board President Rob Kosienski Jr. said he and his board colleagues are thankful for the support of city officials and the council.
“It was really a collaborative effort with the support of Mayor Scarpati,” Kosienski said. “We’re thrilled to be funded wholly.”
Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona said historically funding from the city to the Board of Education “hasn’t really kept up” with other districts of similar size and with similar student demographics.
Cardona, like Cortez, said he doesn’t believe it is the state’s intention to supplant local funding.
“The city can’t just be flat-funding education,” Cardona said.
Reporter Michael Gagne can be reached at email@example.com.