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School District Faces A Budget Shortfall



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School District Faces A Budget Shortfall

By Tanjua Damon

The Newtown Board of Education was informed Tuesday night that the district’s budget is overspent this year due to unexpected costs incurred from special education, medical benefits, snowstorms, opening the new school, and emergency repairs.

Director of Business Ronald Bienkowski explained to the board during his transfers report that the district may be over its budget by approximately $180,000 or worse if the state cuts the Excess Cost Grant up to 20 percent. The district will know better in April what the shortfall is.

Mr Bienkoswki reported that the special education budget is currently “$62,600 in the hole.” The reason for this is that the district budgeted for approximately 30 students and it has almost 40 now that need special services and transportation out of the district. What makes it worse is the possibility of the Excess Cost Grant may be reduced. The grant provides funds to school districts when they are spending five times the amount per pupil they spend on regular students. No concrete figures on the amount of the reduction have been disclosed, according to Mr Bienkowski.

Medical benefits are approaching $75,000 over budget because more people are on the plan than the district had anticipated when doing last year’s budget. With new teachers being hired, the district has to estimate who will take the plan and which plan they will use –– single, two-person, or family.

Costs associated with the opening of a new school have also exceeded expectations. It has cost the district $14,000 in overtime to custodial crews to have the school open on time and a potential $25,000 shortfall because the electricity is on frequently because of the regular school day and construction crews working in the evening on punch list items.

Overtime has also had to be paid because of an overactive winter with snowfall. About $16,000 has had to be paid in order to clear and remove snow from school buildings.

There have been a few emergency repairs that were precipitated by lightning strikes. A temperature control panel had to be replaced at Hawley School for $34,000; an alarm system at Sandy Hook School was replaced for $11,927; and a roof repair was needed at the high school for almost $2,500. The town also sustained lightning damage and has included the school items in an insurance claim, but a $25,000 deductible has to be met first.

The district will continue to look at the state budget to see how it is going to affect Newtown for the remainder of this year as well as for next year’s budget.

“We are reviewing the state budget information which was announced [Tuesday] to determine the full impact that it will have on our school system for the current year as well as for next year,” Superintendent of Schools Evan Pitkoff said. “Aside from the governor’s budget, we have several areas of concern in the current year’s budget such as snow-related overtime, medical benefits, special education tuition and transportation, and emergency repairs which all appear to be in the red. We are reviewing the entire budget and expect to present recommendations to the board at the April board meeting to remedy these line items. Unfortunately, some maintenance projects we were planning to do later this spring may not get done as a result.”

There was discussion at the meeting that scheduled maintenance projects, some already bid, may have to be cut in order to make up for the shortfall areas. The district also talked about a possible purchasing freeze, which has occurred numerous times in the past. Mr Bienkowski pointed out that last year was a good year for the district because there was not a lot of snow and the district changed over to Blue Cross Blue Shield Insurance.

“These things actually show our budget for next year [2003-2004] should be sustained all the more. The same impacts will hit us next year too,” Mr Bienkowski said. “We’re going to have to manage the issue. The budget goes to the multitude of activities. If everyone gives a little bit, it can make a big difference.

“Once again because of a very tight budget and no contingency account, the shortfalls will have to be made up via school program sacrifices,” Mr Bienkowski added.

The board asked to be kept informed before anything was decided and will also receive a budget report in April giving them a better picture of where the district stands financially.

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