’s first big test came as superintendent Monday night, as he faced off against seven men dedicated to finding something, anything to cut from his budget. The new superintendent had just seven weeks to learn every expenditure in his spending plan, and to complicate things, it .
But the board of finance, try as it might, found almost nothing to cut. Even Alan Wilensky, who made news last week by cutting , found almost nothing in a $42.9 million budget.
“He handled himself very well,” Wilensky said after the meeting. “He was thrown into the deep end. And this was really (former Superintendent Randall Collins’) budget, and he had to learn all of it.”
Belair was pleased with the board’s decision not to cut anything, calling it “an investment in the future of our children and our community.” The budget, which has a 2.99 percent increase over last year, is a “growth of investment of 2.99 percent,” Belair said.
That is not to say the board of finance found nothing. The finance board did not cut in certain areas, but pointed them out in an attempt to show the district places it can save money to keep other programs, Wilensky said.
For example, conferences is a place to cut, finance board member J.W. “Bill Sheehan said. The budget was $28,463, down $13,000 from last year, but that could be reduced further to save sports, he said.
“I know it is nice to go to meetings and to talk with your peers and get new ideas,” Sheehan said. “But it is also nice to fund things for the kids.”
Wilensky also suggested having parents pay for the entire cost of advanced placement tests, which would save the district an additional $11,000. Currently, the board of education cut the subsidy of testing in half, and will only pay for $40 of the cost next year.
If instituted, the golf team, which costs $11,000, could be put back in, Wilensky said.
Field trips are another place the district could cut as well, he said. The district is budgeting $69,400 for next year, and perhaps students could pay more of that, he said.
The finance board was unable to make several cuts in the mandated or contractually obligated areas, although that did not stop several members from complaining about them. Members Norman Glidden and Brian Vachris both took shots at the teacher’s 4.3 percent average raise.
The teachers union was asked to freeze their wages but refused to vote on the issue. Later they were asked to take just a 2.3 percent raise, and also refused to .
“The teachers could have taken a freeze, and didn’t,” Vachris said. “If it did, it is clear to me that there wouldn’t have been cuts to the instruction to the extent that there were.”
“The employees will reap what they sow,” he continued. “They will just have to know there will be fewer employees.”
Glidden complained that the teachers and other district employees received raises of 3 and 4 percent, while the town-side employees were largely receiving raises in the 2 percent range.
“I see the town-side employees' (raises), and it isn’t even close,” Glidden said.
Board member George Peteros made a larger point at the increasing cost of special education. He pointed to the transportation costs for special education students, $944,355, and for the rest of the students, $1.184 million.
“They are almost the same, for so much fewer kids,” Peteros said.
The transportation for special education children is 11 percent of the population, or 352 students, while the transportation for the rest of the children is 89 percent, or approximately 2,700 students, according to school officials. The cost per pupil of transporting each special education child is $2,682 on average per year, while the cost of transporting other students is $438 on average annually, according to budget documents.
One child with severe special needs can cost over $250,000, although after a certain threshold the federal and state governments pay most of that, Belair said. Overall, special education represents 23 percent of the entire town budget for education, Belair said.
Meanwhile, students in the talented and gifted program have to several board of education meetings asking the TAG science program be kept in middle school. But it was cut, Wilensky said. There is “no mandate for the other side,” Wilensky said.
Almost all the special education costs are federally mandated, Board of Education Chairman Donald Blevins said. The federal government said it would fund 50 percent of all special education it mandated, but that number in Connecticut is closer to 7 percent, Blevins said.
A Few Interesting Cost-Savers
Oswegatchie Elementary School uses about 60 percent of the electricity that Quaker Hill Elementary School and Great Neck Elementary School use, according to previous years' electric bills. That is because Oswegatchie gets much more sun than Quaker Hill or Great Neck School, and it saves a significant amount of electricity, Buildings and Grounds Director Jay Miner said.
Oswegatchie also uses around 60 percent of the water Quaker Hill or Great Neck School use, for which Miner had no explanation, according to previous expenditures. Adding to the mystery, Oswegatchie has similar sewer use to the other elementary schools, according to actual dollars spent in the 2009-10 fiscal year.
Finally, The Furniture
Sheehan asked Belair about a rumor circulating through comments in various news sites (including this one) that he spent $8,000 on furniture.
Belair said he painted his office, had a bookcase constructed, and got a new chair and a new desk, all of which cost just over $4,000, he said. The furniture he replaced was about 20 years old, the superintendent said.
The money to buy the new furniture came from a special fund Collins received for being president of the American Association of School Administrators. No taxpayer money was used, Belair said.