Board Holds Off on Budget Vote in Light of Busing Overpayment
WETHERSFIELD - District overpayment for transporting Wethersfield students to Corpus Christi-a private high school in town-prompted the Board of Education to hold off on voting for a $500,000 budget reduction plan Tuesday night, as members work to get Christi administrators up to speed.

       The issue is over $141,000 that would be reduced from the Board’s budget if the district funds the transportation at the amount required by state statue, as opposed to the full freight Corpus Christi has been receiving for “quite a few years”, said Board Chair Bobbie Hughes Granato over the phone Wednesday morning.

       “We want to be on the same page,” Granato said. “We didn’t want to appear like we were ramrodding something at them. We’re not looking to fight with our neighbors.”

       Corpus Christi Principal Ann Sarpu, who Granato said expressed concern upon learning of the proposed reduction, did not return an email requesting comment.

       Granato said that Board Finance Director Matt Kozaka picked up on the overpayment during the Board’s renegotiation of its bus contract.

       “It probably would have continued, had we not renegotiated the contract,” Granato said.

       Per CT Statute 10-281, the district must provide a minimum of twice the amount it spent on public school transportation in the past year-or in this case, $110,000-according to a letter Kozaka emailed to Sarpu this week. The total cost for transportation of Wethersfield students to Christi this year-with fuel factored in-is over $275,000.

       “Administration and BOE members deliberated over several days on how to effectively reduce the operating budget without impacting the classroom or personnel,” Kozaka wrote. “This topic was heartily debated and was not an easy decision. However, the BOE determined this reduction was necessary in order to provide the highest level of services for Wethersfield Public Schools while maintaining compliance with CT Statute.” 

       The Board’s aim is to make the reduction without impacting teaching positions-and subsequently, class sizes-or programs. During discussions following the May 15 Council budget passage, Board members extended that to an administrator and central office staffer potentially on the chopping block, but as of this week, $207,000 in health insurance savings, as well as the reduction of a transition academy coordinator to part time, promised to preserve those positions, Granato said.

       The Board avoided two other potential scenarios-a $1 million and $1.5 million cut-for now, but Mayor Paul Montinieri warned that further impact in the way of reduced state aid or the incurring of additional costs, such as the proposed teacher pension shift, could lead to further decreases on the school side, as well as areas of the town budget.

       That’s a lingering question mark right now, inviting the possibility of a reopener at the local level of municipalities are dramatically impacted later.

       “The level of uncertainty is really unprecedented,” Emmett said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

       The largest factor is the teacher’s pensions-a proposal that has remained in the latest draft of the Governor’s budget, against widespread opposition from legislators and local leaders.

       The Council did not include the cost in their adopted budget, with the expectation that if it does past, they will have the opportunity to adjust accordingly.

       That scenario, however, could bring impact to teachers and programs, Emmett said.

       Emmett also has his eye on how revenue is shaping up at the federal level, and sweeping cut proposals to grant programs such as IDEA has not made him optimistic.

       The Board budget-composed primarily of contractually fixed salary and benefit increases-deferred the addition of English Language Learner and special education teaching positions, while holding off on the recruitment of a social work staffer.

       On the ELL side, Emmett noted a forecasted increase in demand-illustrated by the fact that 19 percent of Charles Wright’s Kindergarten class falls under English Language Learner.