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Hartford Schools Budgeting For The Unforeseen


March 05, 2009

Some are calling it innovative. Others are calling it ill-timed.

Regardless of what people think, the Hartford school district's proposal to create a $6 million contingency fund is unique.

"I wouldn't say a lot of boards do that," said Patrice McCarthy, the deputy director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. "But it's a perfectly acceptable line item."

District officials have also requested that individual schools set aside about 5 percent of their budgets, which adds up to about $10.5 million.

State law does not allow school districts to hold over extra funds from year to year, so any portion of the $16.5 million total reserve funds that are not spent would automatically go back to the city at the end of the fiscal year. But the legislature is reviewing a proposal to allow school districts to retain their fund balances, which some say is an indication that more school districts would like to be able to save for a rainy day.

Superintendent Steven J. Adamowski presented the Hartford contingency plan as part of his $367.6 million budget proposal Tuesday night. The proposal cuts spending about $6.4 million, or 1.7 percent, from last year, when Hartford's total school budget was $373.9 million.

The budget proposal also cuts about 250 positions across the district, with about 200 of those coming from within the schools. And that massive reduction in staff has some people questioning the contingency proposal.

"I'd rather see that money go toward anything else," said Milly Arciniegas, president of the PTO Presidents Council. "We're losing 254 positions and we're having $6 million just sitting there. For what?"

But school officials point to uncertain revenue and required expenses that can pop up during the school year as reasons the fund is needed.

Chief Financial Officer Paula Altieri said the district could have used a contingency fund this year, when several unexpected expenses came up before December and pushed the district into a $4.8 million deficit. The district had no "wiggle room," Altieri said, and ended up freezing spending, laying off 20 people from central office jobs and proposing eliminating some bus monitors.

"We think it's fiscally irresponsible if we don't create a contingency," Altieri said. "If we don't have a reserve, should we have a position arise where we receive less revenue" or other unexpected costs come up "we'd just be making a reduction of force mid-year. And that becomes disruptive."

Attorney Thomas Mooney, who heads the school law group at the Shipman and Goodwin law firm, said creating the contingency fund is perfectly legal, and even "innovative." Shipman and Goodwin represents about 80 school districts in the state, including Hartford.

"There's nothing wrong with a contingency fund," Mooney said. "The question is whether the city will fund it."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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