Wallingford BOE sets aside unspent funds for special education

WALLINGFORD — The Board of Education voted this week to carry over about $750,000 in unspent funds leftover from the last fiscal year.

A total of $700,000 of the unspent balance of $752,763 will be set aside for possible increases in special education tuition costs, said Superintendent of Schools Salvatore Menzo.

The remaining money will be used to purchase new technology, Menzo added.

Wallingford, like many school districts, has seen an increase in special education tuition costs in recent years due to a combination of factors, Menzo said, including cuts to special education reimbursement from the state. When a public school district can’t provide appropriate services for a special education student, the student is placed in a private program and the school district pays the cost, a portion of which gets reimbursed by the state.

Menzo said the district is running a $1 million deficit in its special education budget for the current fiscal year.

“We’re trying to be proactive so that we don’t have to come back to the council in the middle of the year and ask for more money,” Menzo said.

The surplus money can be carried over through a non-lapsing education account the town established in 2014. The account, permitted under state statute, allows the Board of Education to carry over unspent funds rather than returning them to the town’s general fund. State law allows municipalities to carry over up to 1 percent of its total education budget.

In past years, money from the account has been used for non-recurring expenses like maintenance and technology. Using the money for operating expense, like special education, “is a departure from our past practice,” Board of Education Chairwoman Roxane McKay said.

It’s possible the district won’t need to use the full $700,000 for special education costs. In that case, Menzo said the money could be rolled over into the next fiscal year to again be used as a safety net for spikes in special education costs.

“Special education is something that goes up and down by the month,” Menzo said. “We feel that the best case scenario is that we don’t touch the $700,000 this year and it stays in there for next year in the event that something happens.”

Special education costs can also be impacted by the number of special education students who move into the school district and require outside services, Menzo said.

The Town Council voted Tuesday night to allow the school board to carry the $752,000 over from last year.

Republican Town Councilor Craig Fishbein, also a state representative, asked Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. at the council meeting if the town would be better off not appropriating the surplus money until Wallingford learns how much state funding it will receive.

“As the CEO of the town, what would you have us do?” Fishbein asked Dickinson.

Dickinson said holding onto the $752,000 is “not going to make a big difference in regard to the (state budget) crisis.” He noted that the town stands to lose an additional $14 million in state aid if the governor’s executive order budget goes into effect next month.

“Fourteen million becomes a whole other question that will involve all of us making some pretty agonizing decisions,” Dickinson said. “Because clearly the town cannot absorb a $14 million loss.”

Dickinson said he thinks it’s appropriate for the Board of Education to keep the $750,000 surplus “given that’s what was budgeted” to the board originally.

“They say that they still need it, I believe that. They are in the best position to know where they really need the money,” Dickinson said.

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