The News-Times

School districts face ‘financial cliff ’

In Danbury-area schools, educators’ jobs are on the line as COVID relief funds expire

- By Kaitlin Lyle

With federal COVID-19 relief funds expiring Sept. 30, some local school districts are facing a “financial cliff ” as they try to continue paying for programs that were covered by the grants.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, known as ESSER, was created in 2020 and bolstered in 2021 to help school districts address pandemic-related learning loss and support student’s social-emotional needs. School districts in Connecticu­t have spent nearly $1.3 billion in federal funds from ESSER, according to state data.

In school districts like Danbury and New Milford, the expiration of the funds will affect the district’s ability to keep teachers, interventi­onists and other educators who have been critical trying to close learning gaps caused by COVID. Other local school districts say they’re prepared to operate without the grants, which were approved in

three batches. Districts are required to use the final batch of funds, known as ESSER III, by Sept. 30.

Danbury is asking for a staggering $31.3 million spending increase next fiscal year, in part to maintain funding for staff, programs and other costs that have been covered by ESSER. School board members admitted when they approved the $181.3 million budget plan that they didn’t expect the city to approve the full request but said the growing district’s needs demanded it.

“We know this is the perfect storm of population increases and ESSER funds stopping and things like that,” said Dan Donovan, principal of Danbury High School, “so there’s a need that’s been unpreceden­ted for this district to ask for $181 million. We’ve never asked for this much, but it’s not something we’re creating — it’s something that’s thrown upon us.”

Danbury is trying to incorporat­e the additional staff, programs and services paid with ESSER funds into the 2024-25 operating budget — a strategy Danbury used for the 2023-24 budget, too, said John Spang, chief financial officer for Danbury Public Schools. Continuing the ESSER-funded services will cost the district nearly $11 million, Spang said.

In addition to ESSER funds expiring and the district’s growing student population, school officials attributed the requested increase to the ongoing overcrowdi­ng at Danbury High School, implementi­ng new network security enhancemen­ts and the cost to open the Academies of Danbury program, among other new and growing costs.

Meanwhile, the New Milford school board adopted a proposed budget of $73.46 million at the board’s Jan. 25 budget hearing. The proposed budget calls for absorbing seven ESSER-funded staff positions and cutting other ESSER-funded positions.

The board’s 2024-25 operating budget proposes incorporat­ing two full-time English language teachers; one fulltime Pathways coordinato­r; two full-time K-8 curriculum specialist­s; one full-time nurse, a part-time in-school suspension monitor; a part-time preschool teacher; and a part-time school counselor — all of which were funded by ESSER. New Milford has also proposed cutting four K-8 reading and math interventi­onists, one 6-12 English language arts coordinato­r and a school counselor.

‘Work with what we have’

Other districts in the Danbury area say they’ve prepared for the COVID funds’ expiration by absorbing grant-funded staff and services into last year’s operating budget as well as next year’s budget. Several districts implemente­d ESSER funds to hire additional staff, create new services and enhance existing programmin­g for students.

Ridgefield Superinten­dent Susie DaSilva said her district made every effort not to create a “fiscal cliff ” by using the grants to cover staffing and programs that couldn’t be sustained when ESSER funding ended. Ridgefield received just over $983,000 in third and final batch of ESSER funds, according to the School + State Finance Project’s ESSER analysis data. DaSilva said the funds were used to create summer programmin­g as well as for tutoring to benefit students.

Newtown Superinten­dent Chris Melillo said his schools made the transition last year to move the ESSER-funded teaching positions into the district’s operating budget.

“We’re not looking at a fiscal cliff for next year but understand there are positions we’re maintainin­g because although the ESSER money is ending, the learning needs to be addressed post-pandemic,” Melillo said. “We have our positions in our budget that are going to address things like behaviors and mental health support.

Newtown received nearly $1.3 million in ESSER III funds, which Melillo said was used for special education support, social emotional learning support and tools “necessary to keep” the school buildings safe, such as air filters and hand sanitizing stations.

Melillo, who noted Lorrie Rodrigue was superinten­dent when Newtown received ESSER funds, said the grants were also used for the district’s extended summer school programs as well as for before and after school programs. He said he doesn’t foresee any negative impact from the ESSER funds expiring “as long as our budget requests are in line.”

“Otherwise we have to work with what we have,” Melillo said. “We’re dealing with a teacher shortage, a paraeducat­or shortage, and we have to look at candidate pools that are shallow.”

Bethel Superinten­dent Christine Carver said Bethel incorporat­ed a couple of ESSERfunde­d special education positions into the district’s 2023-24 budget and eliminated “only one” ESSER-funded position from the 2024-25 budget: a social-emotional learning coach that Carver said was reassigned to another teaching position.

Carver said she didn’t have any concerns about the ESSER funds’ expiration as Bethel had planned for it and used most of the funds “for what I call onetime costs like technology.”

Bethel, which received about $2.7 million in the final allotment, used ESSER funds on additional instructio­nal staff, technology and summer enrichment recovery programs, among other purchases, according to the State + School Finance Project.

Danbury received $25.1 million in ESSER III funds — the majority of which Spang said was spent on salaries and benefits for additional staff, such as classroom teachers, guidance counselors, substitute teachers and social workers.

New Milford, which received just over $2.5 million in ESSER III funds, used the funds to create 13.5 certified staff positions that did not exist in New Milford before 2021, according to Superinten­dent Janet Parlato.

Brookfield Superinten­dent John Barile said having a “three-year phase-in plan” for implementi­ng the ESSER funds put Brookfield in a great place in terms of planning, adding, “It was an opportunit­y to work with the town, the Board of Education and the community.”

“We all worked together to make sure we didn’t face a budget cliff when the funds ran out,” he said. “We treated the grant money as seed money to develop programmin­g to advance student learning that perhaps we would not have been able to start with the same vigor and energy.”

Barile said Brookfield, which received over $828,000 in ESSER III funds, used the grant to hire three instructio­nal coaches, an elementary school math tutor, an occupation­al therapist and a social worker, and to develop Brookfield’s regular education and summer school programs.

“The ESSER funds allowed us to expand instructio­nal coaching to support the skill growth of our teachers, because when their skills expand, kids benefit,” said said Wendy Youngblood, chairperso­n of the Brookfield Board of Education. “We have been able to broaden services such as occupation­al therapy and mental health support. These decisions are big wins for Brookfield students.”

“It’s always tough when a revenue stream dries up,” she said, “but the teams that preceded ours, plus the folks on the current boards, are strategizi­ng to keep the levels of service to our kids high without the same infusion of funds from the federal government.”

 ?? H John Voorhees III/Hearst Connecticu­t Media file photo ?? An Anna H. Rockwell School classroom in Bethel in 2021.
H John Voorhees III/Hearst Connecticu­t Media file photo An Anna H. Rockwell School classroom in Bethel in 2021.
 ?? H John Voorhees III/Hearst Connecticu­t Media file photo ?? Students get off the school bus for their first day of school at Reed Intermedia­te School in Newtown in 2019.
H John Voorhees III/Hearst Connecticu­t Media file photo Students get off the school bus for their first day of school at Reed Intermedia­te School in Newtown in 2019.

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