Federal money at issue in Southington school budget debate

Federal money at issue in Southington school budget debate

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SOUTHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats on the Town Council are divided over education funding and how to use more than $4 million in federal money that’s coming to the school district in the fall.

The council’s Republican majority approved a budget this week that increases school spending nearly $300,000 for the upcoming fiscal year. That’s $1.5 million lower than the increase requested by the Board of Education.

Republicans said the school district can use money from the American Rescue Plan Act to pay for increased costs and contractual wage hikes.

Democrats and school board members said the federal money is intended for programs that help students recover academically from a disrupted school year. Using it for regular expenses also could mean a tax hike when the money runs out.

American Rescue Plan Act

Connecticut received $1.1 billion in school emergency relief funds from the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion federal relief package finalized in March.

Southington’s share is $4,087,963. Twenty percent, more than $800,000, must be spent on learning recovery and addressing the social, emotional and academic needs of students, according to the state Department of Education.

Peter Yazbak, state education department spokesman, said the latest money is unlike previous federal funding. Districts must create plans “that focus on renewal, reducing opportunity gaps, accelerating learning and advancing equity for all student,” according to guidance issued to district leaders.

Within a month of receiving the money, a district has to publicize its plan for a return to in-person learning.

Other than the 20 percent dedicated to learning recovery, the remaining funds can be spent on “a wide range of activities to address needs arising from the coronavirus pandemic such as hiring new staff and avoiding layoffs,” according to Yazbak’s guidance to school leaders. Schools can use the money to pay bills starting on March 13, 2020, when a national emergency was declared, until Sept. 30, 2023.

Rising education bills

School leaders said the $300,000 increase approved by council Republicans doesn’t even cover the salary increases called for by contract.

Salary increases for existing special and regular education employees totaled more than $1.7 million for the upcoming fiscal year, according to the school board’s budget request. The board also asked for new positions costing $334,000.

Salaries are the largest portion of the board’s budget.

Closing the gap

Republicans said the difference between the district’s costs and the budget allocation can be bridged with federal money. To raise taxes and increases spending on education while the schools got millions in federal aid wouldn’t be fair to taxpayers, according to Victoria Triano, Town Council chairwoman and a Republican.

“There should be no problem at all with the budget. They’ve got all of the money that they need if they’re being responsible,” she said. “People are hurting … This isn’t the time to build castles.”

Chris Palmieri, Democratic council minority leader, said using federal funds will create problems in future years when the money is no longer available.

“Those funds are not given year after year,” he said. “They’re given one time and they’re going to dry up.”

In a press release, Southington Town Democratic Committee leaders called the Republicans’ budget “fiscally irresponsible and socially negligent.”

Operating expenses?

During Monday’s council meeting and budget vote, Democratic councilors said the federal money couldn’t be used for operational expenses. Tom Lombardi, a Republican and council vice chairman, quoted portions of the federal bill at the meeting supporting the Republican’s contention that the money could be used to pay school operating bills.

During Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, Sherri Dinello, the school district’s business director, said there is a provision to use the money to maintain salaries. The intention for the money, she said, was for districts to “transform” education and gain back ground lost during the pandemic.

Triano said Democrats would have reached the same conclusion as Lombardi if they’d studied the bill.

“Don’t criticize if the due diligence hasn’t been done,” she said.

Palmieri said school leaders are still waiting for guidance on the federal funds. While there may be a “loophole” to use it for normal expenses rather than pandemic-related programs, he said it’s not the purpose of the money.

“That’s not the intent of those funds, even if there is a provision,” Palmieri said.

Taxes and revaluation

Lombardi said Republicans wanted to keep tax rate increases to a minimum this year. Home revaluation led to higher home assessments and a higher tax bill for the average homeowner. Local residents shouldn’t pay more in taxes to fund education, Lombardi said, when the district was receiving millions in federal aid.

“It’s irresponsible to not look at the big picture of overall funding sources,” he said.

School board members wanted to hire more school psychologists and counselors in the upcoming year, a plan that’s now uncertain. Using the federal money for new programs or positions could also create funding problems when the money is exhausted, according to Lombardi.

“The Democrats have to consider the big picture there,” Lombardi said. “They wanted to hire more people. That would have created the (fiscal) cliff.”

jbuchanan@record-journal.com203-317-2230Twitter: @JBuchananRJ

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