In the last few years, because education budgets are so complex, the Board of Education has asked the administration to divide the information into two parts. The first part was on November 3, 2022. On that date, I presented to the Board of Education an overview of current trends and needs that affected the development of the 2023-2024 school budget. Included in that presentation were topics such as enrollment trends, class size, growing special education needs, etc. We also discussed the impact of the end of the Federal grants the district has received as a result of the pandemic. A copy of that November 3rd presentation is linked here. You can also watch the video of the presentation/meeting by clicking this link.
At last night’s Board of Education meeting I presented the second presentation, a recommended budget to the Board of Education (2023-2024 Superintendent’s Proposed Budget Presentation). The proposed 5.95% increase focuses on only maintaining all of our top-quality curricular and extracurricular programs. I also recommended to the Board to consider adding specialists to address the intervention needs of students above that base amount. The full presentation can be viewed on our BEtv Channel. In addition, all budget documents will be housed on our district dashboard, under the section financial dashboard.
Why is the requested increase so high this year? The biggest drivers of the budget are increasing enrollment and general inflation, special education costs, health care costs, and contractual obligations. In addition, we are losing some grant funding that we used to cover unexpected special education expenses (see below). In addition, we are also feeling the effects of inflation on the cost of goods and services, gasoline, etc. The national inflation rate was 8% for 2022. While we are hopeful that in 2023, inflation will stabilize, the requested increase is below the national average.
How much has enrollment increased? Our school district enrollment has increased by 9% over the last six years. Given recent enrollment projections, we are expected to increase an additional 5.1%. The projections (NESDEC and Milone and McBroom) have been historically inaccurate and an underrepresentation. Year to year, we have had an increase of 65 students with disabilities requiring specialized programming. We can not continue to sustain the growth without additional funding.
How do we compare to other districts in terms of our spending? Bethel is currently ranked 149 out of 164 districts in terms of Per Pupil spending for 2022. We have actually lost ground due to increased enrollment, resulting in loss of resources for more students. Our per-pupil expenditure is in the lowest 10% for the state, yet the community of Bethel is ranked in the top 50% in wealth. We would need a $6,102,756, dollar increase just to reach the state average in per-pupil spending. The net result is that we can not provide equitable services to our students as compared to other communities within the region and state. This means because we are extremely limited in resources, if we have significant cuts from the proposed budget, it will impact, or cut, non-mandated programs such as athletics, extracurricular programs (i.e., clubs and activities), and curricular programs (i.e., ROTC, EMT program, pathway programs, specials, etc.). It is these types of programs that engage students in school and it would be devastating to student mental health if we had drastic cuts in these non-mandated programs.
What is happening with health insurance and what are we doing to try to address the increased cost? Last year, health insurance premiums went up 10.5% and this year is anticipated to go up another 10%. Health benefits comprise almost 20% of our overall operating budget. Aside from salaries and special education costs, it is one of the biggest drivers in the budget. As a result, we have gone out to bid to see if we can get better rates, without compromising coverage for our employees. Preliminary quotes indicate significant reductions in health insurance which could go into effect on July 1st and reduce the overall percentage increase.
Why has special education spending increased so dramatically? First, we have a moral, legal and ethical responsibility to provide services to our students with disabilities. We always strive to be more fiscally efficient by trying to provide quality services in the district. The main spending increase is due to a significant increase in the number of students with disabilities. Year (2021) to Year (2022) we had an increase of 65 students, with a total of 518 (October 1st). We had many students move in this academic year, which were not budgeted for. Thankfully, we had Federal grant funding that helped mitigate the impact. Much of the grant funding will end in September of 2023. This means that we have to transfer the expense into the operating budget. Second, COVID has significantly impacted the complexity of needs for our students with disabilities. Third, we have an increase in students who require out-of-district placements (from 18 to 27 in one year). The increase in tuition and transportation costs alone account for 1.64% of the increase. Lastly, the State of Connecticut has not met its obligation to fully fund the excess cost grant for students with disabilities. This has resulted in a significant loss of reimbursement, shifting the burden to local taxpayers.
What has happened with increases in salaries? Last year, nationally, salaries increased by 4.6%. This is largely due to inflation and shortages in the labor market. Our contractual salary increases are significantly lower than national trends, yet our personnel feels the impact of inflation. In addition, like the private sector, there is a looming teacher and administrator shortage. Many districts struggle to fill positions and competitive salaries, benefit structures, and working conditions are critical in maintaining quality staff. Salaries represent almost 84% of our budget. Teachers teach children. We have phenomenal teaching, administrative, and support staff. If we do not adequately compensate and support our staff, they will have a lot of options for other positions.
The District and Board of Education want to make sure you are informed and have a chance to be involved in the budget process. Below are the mechanisms for public participation.
As the schedule develops we will post it here, on the website, and in other district communications.
Tuesday*, January 31, 2023 (Budget Workshop) - Schools/Athletics
Thursday, February 2, 2023 (Budget Workshop/Approval)
Tuesday*, February 7, 2023 (Budget Workshop – Alt. Date if needed)
Tuesday, February 14, 2023 - BOE Budget Presentation to the Board of Selectmen & Board of Finance at 7:00 PM
*Meeting dates that are an exception to Thursday meetings.
All Board of Education meetings are held in the Board of Education Offices, Meeting Room E, Clifford J. Hurgin Municipal Center, 1 School Street, at 7:00 p.m. (unless otherwise posted).
Please Note: Prior to the budget being set for the referendum, 2023-2024 Education Budget Information can be found here in the Superintendent’s Bethel Public Schools Newsletter each week and on District Dashboard our website. District Dashboard - 2023-2024 Education Budget Information