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Mold, special ed stretching school budget

December 14, 2018

STAMFORD — Mold has taken hold of the city’s public schools this year and it shows in the Board of Education’s ballooning budget.

The district spent more than $600,000 on remediation alone before the end of the first fiscal quarter in September. That does not include the $875,000 spent on custodial overtime due in part to cleanup and $6,000 for class coverage, which in some cases was needed for teachers out sick with mold-related symptoms.

The rising rate of mold-related expenses caused the city in late October to begin paying for them with a reserve fund, which was also used to lease the $1.8 million space on Elmcroft Road for Westover Magnet Elementary School students displaced because of the conditions.

But, according to the district’s first quarter financial report, variances in special education and Superintendent Earl Kim’s central office reorganization plan are stretching the Board of Education’s $273 million operating budget.

Kim, who proposed the central office reorganization last year to improve the structure and organization of staff, said it has affected the district’s “vacancy savings” by filling empty roles like the chief fiscals and operations support officer.

“There was no direct cost associated by that,” said Hugh Murphy, the district’s director of finance. “There were reductions in vacancy savings.”

Kim said the district anticipated savings in consulting and legal services, because that work is no longer outsourced and is being done by central office staff.

“By re-allocating staff, we were able to reduce our legal and consultant services substantially,” Kim said. “So there’s no net budget impact.”

In August, Kim requested the school board to approve moving $509,000 from accounts preserved for consulting, instructional program improvements, contracted services, legal fees, a special education teacher, a charter school and retirement to cover the cost of salaries and benefits for new employees hired in the re-organization.

Kim said at the time that those accounts were chosen because they expected to see savings in them from the reorganization.

Murphy said there were “glitches” in this due to larger costs in legal fees for parental settlements and not knowing the retirements until the end of the school year.

“We’re going to be OK on most of it,” he said.

Kim said the central office cost and headcount remained the same during the re-organization, despite hiring at least six new positions, because they reduced costs in outsourcing work and moved some central office staff to other city departments.

According to a consultant report from this year’s district operating budget, the board is still paying The District Management Group. The Boston business management consultant was hired to implement the central office reorganization and was paid $19,400 in August.

In September, DMG was paid $165,000 for two separate projects working on the cost-effectiveness of paraprofessional supports and services, and implementing and progress monitoring the new vision for Stamford Public Schools.

“We’re in the sun-setting mode with DMG now,” Kim said. “It costs money up front, but in the long term, there’s significant savings (from having consultant work).”

In addition to loss of savings from the central office reorganization, Kim said custodial overtime and special education have been big drivers to this year’s budget. With the maintenance budget frozen except for addressing student and safety issues, the district is trying to keep special education costs down. Murphy said the schools are examining out-of-district placements to determine if some students can return to city schools, as well as trying to control routine legal bills.

Kim said they also needed to hire non-district vendors because they were unable to staff two new therapeutic rooms at Julia A. Stark Elementary School.

erin.kayata@stamfordadvocate.com; (203) 964-2265; @erin_kayata

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