School closing now part of Bridgeport budget gap plan
BRIDGEPORT — Hall School could merge into Edison School and it wouldn’t come close to satisfying the budget gap the school district is facing in the next fiscal year, the city school board has been warned.
Central office in its entirely — from the superintendent on down — could be cut as well, and that, too, would leave the district with a multimillion budget shortfall.
Without $16 million above this year’s $247.7 million operating budget, the Board of Education would not be able to run a viable district, said Marlene Siegel, the district’s chief financial officer.
She called it a fiscal emergency.
“If the city does not provide additional funding, if the state does not come through with more than $2.5 million, this district will not be able to provide a viable educational program with existing funding,” Siegel said.
A similar alarm was sounded eight years ago, when this district was dealt a budget that caused its school board to quit, saying it didn’t have enough money to provide the kind of education more than 20,000 city students are entitled to under the state constitution.
Board members at Wednesday’s Finance Committee said they are determined to fight.
“I am ready,” said Jessica Martinez, chairwoman of the committee.
Martinez was among those who voted to cut deeply into administrative cost last year to answer critics who said the district was top-heavy. She voted in January to end community forums aimed at warning the public about district money woes.
Now she said she will not support any City Council member for re-election who fails to support the school district with additional funding.
This marks at least the fourth year in a row that the district has had to make multimillion-dollar cuts as rising costs in salaries, health care, special education and transportation outpace the average 1 percent increase the district has received in funding during the same period.
Mayor Joe Ganim, who is up for re-election, submitted a budget to the council last week that cuts taxes and flat-funds city schools. The city contributes one quarter of the district’s operating budget.
“We do not see that they have recognized the critical importance of education as a priority branch of city government,” Siegel said. “Every year we are in the same situation ... We need a stable and secure budget stream.”
State funding, which accounts for three-quarters of the district school budget, is set to go up $2.5 million in 2019-20, unless adjustments are made.
That leaves the district to cut more than $13 million.
Siegel said the district is faced with cutting essential services or beginning school in August with a structurally unbalanced budget. Her department has already penciled in budget cut ideas rejected in the past, including $2.7 million by asking staff to take two furlough days, thus shortening the school year, and deferred longevity payments.
Making middle school students who live within 1.25 miles of school walk could shave $700,000 off transportation costs. Cutting assistant principals and one clerical position from the Fairchild Wheeler campus could save $352,857. Extending a hiring freeze already in effect this year could save another $1 million.
“No one wants to do these things,” Siegel said.
Closing schools has been raised in the past, most recently in 2016, when it was suggested the district close both Hall and Edison Schools. This time, the suggestion is to fold the 200 students attending Hall School, on Clermont Avenue, into Edison, a school with 184 students and 17 classrooms less than a half mile away on Boston Terrace.
Siegel said the merger could save about $1 million.
Board member Hernan Illingworth said closing schools could become a reality this time. He also wants the council to know that Bridgeport’s central office, which includes 106 employees and 17 offices, is much smaller than in peer districts like Hartford and New Haven.
School Superintendent Aresta Johnson said cuts to central office staff have administrators doing multiple jobs. That impacts their ability to support and supervise principals, she said.
Johnson urged the board to go to both the city and state with a united voice. She said she is willing to send a bus up to Hartford, but not if she is the only one on it.
Joe Sokolovic, the school board’s secretary, said he has been up to Hartford on one of those near “empty” buses.
“We should not be pleading for essential appropriations,” he said.
The board will meet with the city council’s budget committee on Wednesday. A public hearing on the budget is set for 6 p.m., April 23, at City Hall.
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