WALLINGFORD — The Board of Education continues to project that the district will end the fiscal year with an approximately $3.3 million surplus — largely derived from not paying the remainder of its bus transportation contract while schools are closed.
The projections run counter to those in surrounding school districts, where administrators stress that compliance with the governor’s school shutdown order means honoring transportation contracts.
A spokesman for Wallingford’s bus transportation provider, Durham School Services, said the company is disappointed that Wallingford has withheld payment during the shutdown.
Durham School Services spokesman Edward Flavin said company officials have been in contact with the district to work on a solution.
Their employees have been encouraged to file for unemployment and the company, based in Illinois and operating in 32 states, continues to pay for healthcare for those workers.
“Many districts throughout the United States have been very cooperative in paying us so that we can, in turn, pay our staff members during school closures,” Flavin wrote in an email. “We are disappointed that we have not received payment, so far. However, we are hopeful that we can rectify the matter and pay our staff members who are also members of the Wallingford community.”
Budget documents discussed during Monday’s school board meeting continue to project that the district will have just over $900,000 in unencumbered funds after a number of transfers from the surplus, including subsidizing the food service program and returning $1 million to municipal government, earmarked for offsetting the tax increase in next year’s budget. The food service program is providing free meals during the shutdown,
“We expect that to change for a lot of reasons. Things are still going to happen, we’re looking at other opportunities and we don’t know what’s coming down the road next month either,” business manager Dominic Barone said. “You know, the projection I put out there I think got some folks excited, but I think that was really one look at how things could come out.”
According to budget documents from the board’s operations committee meeting on April 20, the district’s surplus is projected to grow $2.5 million due to the school shutdown. A little less than $2 million is based on an assumption the district will not have to pay for the remainder of its transportation contract.
That’s on top of around $800,000 that the district was expecting to save throughout the year outside of the shutdown.
Superintendents in surrounding districts have told elected officials in their towns that the approach is flawed, pointing to Gov. Ned Lamont’s Executive Order 7R, which states that municipalities and school districts are required to continue “to make payments to transportation providers so that they may compensate their active employees and provide them health insurance.”
Wallingford School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo told the Board of Education that the town is trying to stay in compliance with state and federal law while exploring opportunities for savings.
“I’ll talk about the elephant in the room and why we we’re such a spotlighted district last week based on our projections, which was the transportation piece,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that we are not trying to be obstructionist, we’re not trying to be difficult, but we are looking at it and doing our due diligence to determine what, if at all, is our liability to our school district regarding transportation. So I just want to make that clear, we’re not trying to go against executive orders, we’re not trying to violate the CARES Act — we’re just trying to get a better understanding.”
‘Force of law’
During a public hearing on Southington’s budget on Monday night, School Superintendent Timothy Connellan responded to residents questioning why there weren’t more savings from not having buses running by pointing to the executive order.
He said Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order required school districts to continue paying school bus companies, although school leaders could attempt to negotiate reduced rates. The executive order had the “force of law,” Connellan said.
After Meriden City Councilor Dan Brunet said there needed to be “a better effort to calculate any surplus in regards to the bus contract,” during an April 23 finance committee meeting, School Superintendent Mark Benigni also noted that the executive order requires that the city’s transportation contract be paid.
Wallingford will eventually have to “hash that out,” Benigni added.
Wallingford Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. stated that the executive order is not applicable to the town’s situation since its transportation contract states that Durham School Services, the bus provider, is paid by each route it runs, rather than it being an umbrella contract. With schools closed and no runs being made Dickinson said, “there's no contract to be paid.”
“I don't know what the confusion is, but that's what the contract states,” he said.
Dickinson said he could understand other districts negotiating a lower rate to abide by the executive order’s language to lower payments to contractors to only cover the cost of fulfilling their employees’ pay and benefits, however, since Wallingford’s payments are made by the route, which vary even outside the pandemic, he doesn’t see a way to enumerate those payments.
“If a run isn't being made how do they collect money on that?” he asked.
While the Board of Education acts as an agent in the town’s contract between Durham, the contract is signed between the municipal government and the contractor. Dickinson stated that he’s had no contact with the state nor Durham as of Tuesday regarding paying the contract.
Menzo said the district is in collaborative talks with Durham, however, he could not comment further since it’s a matter under negotiation.
“We’re trying to explore all options and help them explore all options,” he said. “…They’re being very collaborative.”