Hamden Public Schools Looks for $8 Million to Avoid Deficit

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There’s an $8.5 million deficit on the horizon for Hamden Public Schools and there’s concern about how it’s going to get filled.

In his proposed $99.8 million budget for next year, Superintendent Gary Highsmith says the money is needed to cover the ending of a federal emergency grant and the increase of regular set costs. It won’t fund new programs or new hires.

“I’d love to be able to do a lot more things: a lot more interventions, a lot more enrichment programs, but I understand where we are,” Highsmith said. “It’s going to be difficult for us to operate a school system with that sort of deficit on top of contractual salary increases transportation increases, special education costs that are increasing."

The school system was receiving $10 million in federal emergency funds through the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief grant, or ESSER.

They’ve spent $3.9 million each year over the last two years when Highsmith said the town wasn’t able to increase the budget. They also spent another $2.2 million on school upgrades.

He hopes the town will now be able to fund the increase that was covered by ESSER.

“As a former HR person, you can’t cut positions in order to save $8.5 million. That’s catastrophic 20 across the board,” Highsmith said.

Highsmith said it’s premature to point out what would be cut if the money doesn’t come through. He said he doesn’t want to be alarmist and that they’ll take a look at all possible cuts carefully.

Board of Education member Walter Morton IV said the budget issue is one they’ve faced for over a decade and it showed up in the last few years.

“The last three years we were flat funded twice, about two years ago, we got about a two percent increase,” Morton said.

The little to no increase in that time span set the bar for the budget gap they’re now facing.

The $8.5 million would cover the $3.9 million lost with the end of the ESSER grant and regular operating expenses.

“Now we’re at a point where there’s a fiscal cliff in our budget and it’s either we get that full amount of the $8.5 million and we can maintain things as they are. Anything less than that we’re going to have to look at cuts to programing and staff,” Morton said.

Parents say they’re already feeling the pinch.

“Our title one money that would help our student activities is getting funneled other places to keep the lights on, as they say,” said Sariel Alessi, a parent and member of the Ridge Hill School PTA.

Allessi said parents are getting messages this school year about shortages in supplies or field trips that have to be canceled.

“It really impacts what’s going on, especially post-COVID that they are not getting exposed to the world around them and they’re not even getting the same opportunities they used to,” Alessi said.

She said she’s planning a panel discussion for Friday with Hamden education leaders to cover budgeting and its impacts on students.

“Nobody want’s their taxes to go up any further in all places, especially in Hamden, but we would like to see that the money is used properly and there’s accountability," Alessi said.

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