New London school district braces for state cuts, hopes for best

New London — Budget uncertainty has the school district contemplating the loss of 21 positions in the schools to make up for the potential loss of $2 million in state funding.

Outgoing Superintendent Manuel Rivera presented what he called a “worst case scenario” to members of the Board of Education’s Finance and Audit Committee on Monday — a contingency plan in the event state education funds to the district fall short of predictions.

The proposal includes no teacher layoffs, Rivera is quick to point out, despite rumors circulating to the contrary. Instead, the evolving plan could impact 12 “non-certified, non-teaching positions,” along with six certified positions and four districtwide or central administration positions. Specific positions were not immediately identified.

The three members of the committee opted not to vote on Rivera's request to implement the recommendations as he had requested between Aug. 24 and Sept. 30, pending approval of a state budget.

“Trying to manage through this state budget nightmare has been very problematic,” Rivera said. “I’ve alerted the board to a potential budget gap ... and wanted to alert them where we were. Based on our projection, we estimated that gap could go as high as $2 million. We don’t know exactly. No additional reductions may be necessary.”

He said state Education Cost Sharing and special education funding remain a moving target even with a recent proposal by the governor that would keep ECS funding at last year's level and mostly save New London from deep cuts. Under a budget plan proposed by state House Democrats on Wednesday, New London's ECS aid would increase by a little more than $257,000, or 1 percent, over last year's funding level.

Because of the continuing uncertainty, Rivera said, he and staff have spent the last month meeting with school principals to find areas of the budget to cut while protecting basic programs.

The recommendations presented to the committee Monday, which have since been revised, included cuts to 25 positions.

Zak Leavy, chairman of the committee, said there were too many unknowns and he needed more specific information about which positions already were vacant, how the moves would impact classrooms and what the other options are.

“I thought it would be improper to make cuts without knowing what is going to happen,” Leavy said Wednesday.

Committee member Jason Catala called Rivera’s request a “bombshell” and said the proposed cuts, if they were needed, should have been discussed and voted on by the board prior to the passage of the school district’s $69.7 million budget.

“If cuts were needed, it should have happened when we were putting together our budget. Nothing has changed. It’s extremely bad management,” Catala said. “With his cut proposals, people are going to lose their jobs ... but not the six-figure positions. I think it is irresponsible.”

Rivera said the district tried to account for potential revenue losses and already had lowered expectations for ECS funds. The budget anticipates an additional $3.5 million in state special education funding and a $1.6 million reduction in ECS funds.

The uncertainly at the state level requires decisions, Rivera said, that would be unnecessarily disruptive if they were done in the middle of the school year.

Committee member Mirna Martinez said potential revenue loss is a grim reality and other districts are facing the same discomfort.

ECS funds are distributed to municipalities in October, January and April, and local education officials are counting on a budget to be voted on by the General Assembly before October.

“Is it more responsible to wait until Oct. 1 and know exactly what we’re talking about or more responsible to decide beforehand and have preparations in place?” Martinez said. “There’s no perfect answer in this rock-and-a-hard-place budget situation we’re in. I may not agree with parts of the plan but I do agree with the process happening. I‘m glad for the dialogue.”

The school district’s budget for fiscal year 2018 includes an additional 36 new positions in the schools with less administration, Rivera said. He said the district has yet to hire all of the paraprofessionals budgeted for. In addition to a potential drop in state revenue, Rivera said, the district also is contending with the elimination by the city of $500,000 for school maintenance.

Without the approval of the finance committee, Rivera said he would review the recommendation with the new interim superintendent, who is supposed to be appointed by the school board on Thursday. Rivera is expected to retire by the end of September.


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