Questions concerning medical benefit reserve funds, mental health, and the impact that COVID-19 had on teachers filled much of a recent meeting between Cheshire School District officials and Town Councilors.
On April 5, the Council heard from Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jeff Solan and Vincent Masciana, chief operating officer, about the Board of Education’s proposed operating budget.
The Board voted in favor of a $ 81.11 million budget earlier this year. Councilors are currently vetting budget requests from not only the Board, but Town departments as well, with a proposed budget adoption date of April 26.
The Board’s proposed budget is a $ 2.6 million increase over the District’s current spending plan. Much of the increases come from contractual obligations, like salaries, totaling $ 1.07 million, funding the medical benefit reserve fund at $ 744,465, and building maintenance and repair needs at $ 100,000.
Historically, the District and Town have overfunded and underfunded the medical benefits reserve fund from year to year. Masciana explained that, approximately six years ago, the District built up a reserve fund until it reached $ 4 million. Then, the Councilors and the Board agreed to begin underfunding the account and use those reserves to pay for medical claims, which worked until the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
“We got walloped with claims… then the fund balance really got hit hard,” reflected Masciana. “Because we’ve been funding lower than (the) expected claims (amount), now you really have to increase your operating budget to the point of pain. That’s what happened to us over the last two years. ”
A way to resolve that issue, Masciana continued, is to adequately fund the reserve account.
“The only way to avoid that is, every year, we fund our contributions based on what the Actuarial claims are (projecting),” he said.
In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, the District budgeted $ 815,000 per month for claims, but the Actuarial projection totaled $ 900,000 per month. To make up the difference in next year’s budget, the Board supported the District’s request to increase funding to $ 1 million per month.
“We’re going from the $ 815,000 we budgeted to $ 1 million a month because that’s what the claims are expected to be,” Masciana stated.
Councilor Jim Jinks inquired about the state of the teachers, reflecting on burnout and turnover in the education realm.
“Are we seeing that in Cheshire, and how concerned are you going forward?” Jinks asked.
According to Solan, the District has only received two formal retirement letters this fiscal year so far, but he added that the Pandemic has been hard on staff districtwide.
“The last two years have really pushed people to the Brink,” Solan said. “… Fortunately we’ve had very few people leave Cheshire… I think we had two people resign and move on earlier this year due to vaccination requirements, but other than that, I can’t think of anyone else who’s left the profession.”
Solan continued, “We try to be very sensitive to those needs and support and accommodate all of our staff, but it’s been a tough time.”
Council Chair Tim Slocum asked how the District is prioritizing mental health needs in schools. Solan responded that, in 2016, the District began focusing on social emotional learning, making sure “students are self aware, (and) can initiate on their own,” and teaching emotional regulation.
Slocum added that he’s heard about men between the ages of 20 and 30 leaving their workplaces “because they’re drug dependent,” which is now reflected in unemployment numbers.
“There’s a lot occurring, a lot of you and I have nothing that we can do about it,” Slocum stated. “I know it’s a reality, but at what point does it become a distraction that’s expensive?”
Solan said the District is working on supporting individuals between the ages of 5 and 20.
“What we’re trying to teach kids are the skills to navigate the stressors they’re going to incur, Pandemic or not. Life can be stressful, especially today, ”said Solan.
Councilors also praised the District and Board for their hard work over the past two years. Councilor Sandy Pavano, who also previously served on the Board, commented on how the District is always looking for ways to cut costs while supporting its employees.
Councilor Peter Talbot also praised the District and its staff.
“The past two years, for the majority of the world, were tough,” Talbot said. “For people involved in education, it was nothing like what we went through. You guys had it so much worse. I give you a lot of credit and thank you for all the things that you did during extremely difficult times and under extremely difficult circumstances. ”