Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi on Monday night proposed an operating budget for the district of $88,541,473 in fiscal year 2017—a 6.4 percent increase over current spending.
Of the overall $5.3 million increase in proposed spending, two-thirds is driven by health insurance—the end result, Board of Education Chair Dionna Carlson said, of a policy developed by district and town officials three years ago (more on that below), whereby reserves have been taken to understate insurance expenses.
“We did it year after year after year to the point where we said, ‘There is going to be a year where you cannot take more reserves and you will have huge jump in your insurance number,’ and this is the year,” Carlson said during the meeting and first read of Luizzi’s budget, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School.
Specifically, under the proposed FY17 budget (available here as a PDF), the district would spend about $14.1 million on health insurance next year, up from $10.5 million this year.
“This is the year, and so we need to focus on [the fact that] it is a [2.1] percent educational budget increase—it is not a [6.4 percent increase]. That is from bad decisions made in the past—or decisions to ‘help the budget,’ whatever you want to say.”
Board of Ed members, and Luizzi, underscored that the overall budget addresses needs related to employee benefits while also focusing on continuing excellence in New Canaan Public Schools.
Luizzi described the district’s challenge as “always to continue meeting our obligations, the community’s high expectations of sustained excellence, with a focus on continuous improvement.”
“All of that while simultaneously meeting the community’s express need for a low overall budget increase,” he said during his two-hour presentation (available here).
Though budget drivers such as insurance costs must e addressed, the superintendent said, “What we didn’t allow to happen was for those to overshadow the program improvements and the other work that we need to do in support of curricular instruction and assessment that directly translates to the student’s experience in the classroom.”
Luizzi spotlighted several ways that district is succeeding in educating New Canaan students, attributing the following high marks at the high school level to the entire pre-K through 12th grade education:
New Canaan High School Benchmarks
|4-Year College Attendance Rate||94%||94%|
|% Accepted into 1st Choice of College||66%||65%|
|% Attending "Most Competitive" Schools||28%||34%|
|Average SAT Score Combined||1,771||1,785|
|Number of Advanced Placement (AP) Courses||22||23|
|% AP Tests Scoring 3+||92.4%||92%|
|Average ACT Score||25.9||26.3|
|% Students Participating in Athletics or Clubs||85%||88%|
The proposed spending plan includes the net addition of 7.3 full-time equivalents in the schools—meeting classroom and other needs based on enrollment projections and class size guidelines.
Specifically, the proposed budget calls for: one new teacher at each elementary school with attendant specials area class support; a writing specialist at West School; two classroom teachers at Saxe Middle School; making full-time a part-time language arts leader at Saxe; restoring to full-time a STEM teacher at New Canaan High School; a new special education administrator.
The school board voted 9-0 to accept Luizzi’s proposed budget on a first-read basis, and will return to it for a second read at its Jan. 25 meeting.
Luizzi spent some time reviewing the need for a full-time special education administrator. Currently, two administrators divide the work of overseeing Special Education in the public schools—evaluating and supervising all staff, communicating with parents, sitting in on meetings, keeping abreast of developments in Special Ed requirements and regulations—one responsible for pre-K through fifth grade, the other sixth grade through “Launch” (any Special Ed student through age 21).
“The enormity of these roles, it is really impressive the work that they are doing, given the complexity of the roles,” the superintendent said.
By adding a third administrator, the program could be restructured to work more efficiently, Luizzi said, with one admin overseeing pre-K through fourth grade, one fifth through eighth, and one the high school grades and Launch population.
“Currently, the schedules are such that [Special Ed admins] are between buildings and the middle school and high school,” Luizzi said.
“But parent needs don’t work that way, student needs don’t work that way. The value of having someone in the building all the time for those connections and that help will be really enormous.”
Luizzi also spent time reviewing the high percentage increase in employee benefits, driven almost exclusively by projected health insurance costs.
Last year, he said, decision was made to use part of the reserve ($1.1 million) to supplant the district’s operating budget.
“So to reduce the budget by that amount, we then moved money from the reserve to meet the anticipated claims amount,” he said. “This is the third year that the district has been doing that and it has worked through the years to keep total budget lower as we have gone through, but as a result of those decisions, the operating budget doesn’t fully reflect the true costs of the insurance program in this year.”
Before the district can move the insurance number forward at all, based on claims history, “we first have to ‘true it up’ to the actual cost of this year, and then we can add whatever we need to based on our claims history and experience of costs.”
“So the $1.1 million deficit, essentially, that we go into the year, is first step to ‘true-ing that up’ to where it is, and we’re not exactly sure what that will line up to mean. We are hoping that claims run very well and that we can be at the $1.1 million. It might be a higher number, which in part is why you have a reserve so if that it doesn’t run according to plan, you can make up that difference. But the purpose for doing that has reduced the amount available in those reserves. So before we can look at what the FY17 costs would mean, we have to‑at least in our planning—make FY16 budget whole. So right now that is about $1.1 million, and then the change from there is whatever increase would be on the budget, on the insurance line, which really does come directly from our claims history.”
The Board of Ed last year called the town’s cut to its health insurance reserve fund “risky,” and was frustrated at the end of the budget process by that move and a final, unexplained, seemingly arbitrary $100,000 reduction to its proposed funding increase.
Under a policy that had been crafted by both the Board of Ed and selectmen, the district maintains 60 percent of the approximately $3 million health insurance reserve, known as the stop loss health corridor, as part of its budget, while the town maintains the other 40 percent in a special reserve on the town’s books. (To save money, the Town of New Canaan self-insures as opposed to using full insurance.)
Carlson said she wants to understand—with help from a consultant who will work with the school board through its second read of Luizzi’s budget—how increasing the district’s individual stop loss from $100,000 to $300,00 has affected its insurance cost.
The town has adopted something closer to the district’s former stop loss “because they saw what is happening to us by raising our individual stop loss to $300,000,” Carlson said, “so we need to be clear that some of the issues we are facing now were a direct result of decisions that were made three years ago.”
“And I understand why they were made, but we are paying for them today,” she said.
Luizzi outlined a communications plan with parents and the wider New Canaan community regarding the budget (see the third slide in the “Superintendent’s 2016-17 Proposed Budget Presentation), including workshops and video options.