WALLINGFORD — The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has school administrators facing new challenges in developing the 2021-22 budget.
A $108 million proposed budget, presented at a Board of Education meeting Wednesday by Superintendent Salvatore Menzo, includes the same two elements as previous years.
The sustained services budget includes costs needed to maintain the school district — like contractual salary increases, health insurance and transportation — and the strategic plan budget includes items from the school board's long-term strategic plan — like bonding for capital projects.
Menzo recommended a sustained services budget of $107,044,379, a 1.9 increase from the current year, and a strategic plan budget of $992,792, an additional .94 percent increase from the current year, which would bring the total budget to $108,037,171, an increase of 2.13 percent.
In his presentation, Menzo included $2.6 million in estimated COVID-19-related expenses, but emphasized the costs are not part of his budget request, as there might be state funding available.
“I would not want the town to take on additional tax burden (right now),” he said, “but I do feel it’s important that we at least identify those costs for the Board of Education as well as townspeople.”
The budget includes an overall 2.9 percent contractual increase in teachers’ wages and a 2.01 percent contractual wage increase for administrators.
Two positions would be increased to full time, a social worker at Sheehan High School and a counselor at Wallingford Adult Education.
Retirements of certified staff saves the district $477,106. The elimination of three elementary teachers — a decision based on enrollment — and two special education clerical positions saves a total of $308,315.
Health insurance costs actually decreased by 3.6 percent, which Menzo attributed to fewer doctor visits and less paid out for claims. It means teachers will be paying less for health insurance, on top of the contractual pay increase, he said.Zero-based budgets
The pandemic has impacted operations district-wide, and has affected the proposed budget in several ways beyond staffing.
Menzo said that financial donations generated from within the community decreased in 2019-2020, reaching $167,993. That’s about 27.9 percent less than the district has collected on average over the four previous years.
He said factors that contributed to the decrease in donations include cancelled end-of-the-year high school activities and the struggles facing local business.
The district did receive competitive grant awards for technology, curriculum and social/emotional development of students, he said.
Another change is that school principals developed zero-based building budgets.
In the past, the administrators were given a per-student allocation. This year, they had to start at zero and connect each purchase request to a strategic plan goal or objective.
“It was much more granular,” Menzo said. “It made for really thoughtful conversations.”
The district isn't planning to buy as much new technology in the upcoming year, Menzo said, since they bought a lot of technology — like Chromebooks — out of the current fiscal year’s budget to support distance learning.Enrollment trends
Student enrollment is projected to remain almost flat, falling slightly from 5,472 students currently to an estimated 5,438 next school year.
Menzo says kindergarten enrollment numbers are "a little soft" because some parents decided to keep their kindergarten-age children home for another year.
“We don’t know how many kindergarten kids we’re really expecting in the fall,” he said, “because a lot of parents did not even enroll their students.”
The number of first graders might go up in the fall as well, due to the trend of parents keeping their young kids at home or sending them to a kindergarten closer to where they work.
Participation in the free-and-reduced lunch program also remained almost flat, increasing by only three students from the last school year.
Menzo said he is encouraging more families to apply for the program. Since the district provided free lunch for all students without the need to sign up, some parents didn’t sign up their kids for the program, which the district depends on for obtaining state aid and as a measure of income inequality in the district.Final budget process
The Board of Education neither took action nor discussed the presentation, but is scheduled to meet again about the budget Jan. 27 and Feb. 3, both of which are Wednesdays. A survey was emailed to school district families Thursday.
Typically in past years, the spending increase Menzo proposes in January gets trimmed before the board sends a budget request to Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. by the end of February.
Last year, the board requested a budget of $107,154,215, an increase of 3.57 percent.
Dickinson traditionally approves a spending increase lower than the one requested by the board.
Last year, he proposed a budget of $105,885,577, or a 2.34 percent increase.
The town council further reduced the BOE request by $100,000 after amending Dickinson’s budget to eliminate a tax increase. The adopted BOE budget for the current fiscal year ended up at $105,785,557, an increase of 2.25 percent.