At last night’s Board of Finance meeting, Monica DiCostanzo (D-7), chair of the Board of Representative’s Fiscal Committee, reported that thirty-three (33) out of forty (40) members of the Board of Representatives signed onto a letter promising that there will be no increase in the mill rate this year.
The Board of Finance had already pledged to have no increase in the mill rate over last year. As explained previously, the Boards of Finance and Representatives have power only to reduce, and not increase, the proposed budgets from the Mayor and the Superintendent, except in special circumstances not applicable here. So, if either Board has a majority in favor of no mill rate increase, there will be no mill rate increase. Keeping a promise to hold property taxes constant would be in line with what neighboring towns have done, such as Darien, which reduced its mill rate this year, and Greenwich, which likewise reduced its mill rate.
Accordingly, it looks increasingly likely that Superintendent Lucero’s proposed budget of $301.5 million, which she already reduced by $3.4 million, will be cut an additional $15 million (about 5%) to $283.1 million—the same amount it was in 2019–20. (My understanding is that municipal educational spending cannot be reduced year over year pursuant to state law, expect for certain exceptions not applicable here. So it can’t go any lower than $283.1 million.)
While Stamford’s elected boards can impose top-line cuts to the Board of Education’s budget, they cannot unilaterally reduce salaries. Those salaries, and other benefits, are set pursuant to collective bargaining agreements between the Board of Education and the city’s employee unions. Accordingly, if the Stamford Education Association (SEA) does not agree to any salary reductions on the roughly $180 million in expenses on account of their members in the upcoming fiscal year, the Superintendent, subject to final say of the Board of Education, will be forced to impose some combination of layoffs and program cuts to make up the deficit.
In a memo dated May 13, 2020 to the SEA, the Superintendent laid out the options Stamford Public Schools (SPS) faces. On one hand, SPS could save $15 million through staffing cuts across the district, as well as keeping vacant unfilled positions the Superintendent would like to fill. This would include, for example, cuts in the Superintendent’s cabinet (where Lucero would cut one position to save $200,000) and among classroom professionals (where 12 teachers would be cut resulting in larger class sizes). It would also include cuts in programming for the city’s students, such as the elimination (or perhaps just a reduction in spending?) of freshman sports to save $129,200.
Alternatively, these job losses and programming cuts could all be saved, but only at a cost to classroom professionals’ compensation of the same amount. In her May 13 memo, Lucero set forth compensation cuts that would bridge the $15 million gap. The SEA could forgo salary increases for the next two years and take a 2.74% salary reduction. They could freeze salaries and agree to a lower salary scale for new hires. They could freeze salaries and increase health care premium cost share by 10%. And various iterations of the foregoing would also get to $15 million.
Some have asked if employee buyouts might reduce expenses. Lucero’s memo notes that “[t]he projected cost reductions from an employee buyout do not achieve the required cost reductions[,]” while leaving unclear if an employee buyout program might lead to any cost reductions.
On May 14, a day after Lucero sent her memo, Diane Phanos, president of the SEA, sent an email to all teachers, stating that the cuts the Board of Finance “are asking [for are] premature and will not be in the best interests of our schools, students, or staff.” She observed that state or federal support may make up any budget deficit, and noted that Stamford’s $14 million surplus from the previous fiscal year, which had been largely allocated to road paving, could be reallocated. However, at last night’s Board of Finance meeting, Kathryn Emmett, Legal Director for the city, stated that state law prevents such reappropriation. (That said, I do wonder if paving money not yet allocated for this upcoming year could be reduced and reallocated to account for last year’s surplus.)
“As you know,” Phanos wrote, “educators have gone above and beyond in adapting to this pandemic, working long hours under trying circumstances to keep the education process going through distance learning, and have provided stability for students and families. Penalizing teachers and schools is the wrong course for students and families.”
“I say NO to concessions.” she concluded. “Your SEA Executive Board says NO to concessions, too.” (bolding in original).
Phanos is right to be frustrated about being asked for concessions, especially before the picture is clear on how much state and federal money might support Stamford and its students. And perhaps if such money is ever received, it could be conditionally allocated to teachers or other important positions and programs.
However, time is running out for an agreement to be reached on how to spread the proposed cuts to SPS. If the Board of Finance and Board of Representatives keep their promises, the SEA may be forced to choose: do we prefer salary reductions with no job losses, or job losses and programming cuts, but no salary reductions for those who remain employed?