Barnes says State won’t pickup city school tab forever

barnesBRIDGEPORT — The city must pass a 2014-15 budget that fully meets its obligation for city schools before the state gives it an additional $1.2 million to make this year’s city school budget whole.
Benjamin Barnes, Secretary of the state Office of Policy and Management, who helped broker the deal reached over the weekend, said he doesn’t want this to be an annual bail out program and is looking for assurances the city will finally fully fund its Minimum Budget Requirement going forward.

That requirement fell short by $3.3 million in the 2013-14 school year and city and state officials have been meeting off and on for months. Aware that the city school board was prepared Monday to pass a resolution demanding the funds, Barnes said he felt the time was right to finalize the deal.

“With a new school board coming in, it was likely this would be an overwhelming issue for them,” said Barnes. “I didn’t want that to happen.”

For nearly a year before he became the state budget chief, Barnes served as interim director of finance in the city so knows first hand both the city’s and school district’s ongoing financial struggles.

The deal would recognize about $1.2 million worth of in-kind services to the school board, would allow the city to shave $1.1 million off the school board’s Worker’s Compensation contribution and would have the state make an additional $1.2 million contribution to the city by the end of the fiscal year.

Barnes said he had some contact with the legislature’s appropriations committee chairs over the matter but believes the administration has broad authority within existing education reform dollars to make the additional payment to Bridgeport.

He also indicated that the city has indicated some latitude in the Workman’s Compensation fund because of projected claims. This would be the second year in a row the district received a financial bailout from the state. Last year, the final $3 million of a multi-million dollar budget gap was closed by the state. One of the provisions gave the commissioner of education a say in the next city schools superintendent. Barnes said there are no additional strings to this deal other than that the city meet its obligation. Although numbers are not firm, he expects the city will have to contribute about $2 million above this years contribution in 2014-15.

This year, under the state’s Minimum Budget Requirement, the city should be contributing $58.9 million toward the district’s 2013-14 operating budget. Knowing that, the city council passed a budget of $55.6 million toward its school district. The state’s contribution was $231.7 million.

In a letter to Mayor Bill Finch released Sunday, Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor called the deal less than ideal.

“But it can be sufficient to allow all parties to turn their attention from past conflicts to our aspirations for the future,” Pryor wrote.

The next step, said Barnes, is up to the school board and city. They meet tonight.

At the board’s last meeting departing school board member Maria Pereira said the district should accept nothing less than $3.3 million in cash from the city. School Superintendent Paul Vallas said the funds were needed and expected but that he was preparing contingencies to make sure he didn’t leave the school district in the red. Only board member Thomas Mulligan and Leticia Colon, both leaving the board, were willing to let the city off the hook, with Mulligan saying the city was broke.

To follow along at the board meeting, follow me on Twitter: @lclambeck

Linda Lambeck