Superintendent of Schools Jeff Solan is asking for nearly $4 million more in local funding than was allocated by the Cheshire Town Council last year.
It’s a big ask. It would be a big ask in normal times, but the town, state, and country are in the midst of decidedly unusual times. And unfortunately, how those times have and will impact the local and state economy remains a mystery.
What impact will the rollout of the vaccine have on the response to the pandemic? Will mitigation practices that have put several businesses in a state of limbo begin to lift soon, or will those limitations remain for several months into 2021? Even if restrictions are to be lifted sooner rather than later, how long would it be before people truly felt comfortable returning to their pre-pandemic normalcy?
And will yet another relief package be signed into law at the federal level, and what will that mean for a recovery in Connecticut?
There are no answers to these questions at the moment, and there’s little chance that perfect clarity will be possible by the time the Cheshire Town Council sits down to finalize the municipality’s overall operating budget for the fiscal year. As of now, one would likely be wise to bank on the Council erring on the side of extreme fiscal caution, which has been their modus operandi even before the pandemic hit.
However, when looking at Solan’s budget, it’s hard to argue with the need to fully fund the two pieces driving the majority of the recommended increase. Cheshire’s schools are aging and that means more maintenance is required to keep them safe and comfortable. COVID-19 has only shined an even brighter light on the need to make sure the community’s schools are up-to-date, and even when the virus no longer presents the risk it currently does, one would imagine that our post-pandemic world will require even stricter standards of hygiene and health safety protocols.
The School Modernization Committee is currently in the process of reviewing numerous plans to tackle the overall health of the local schools, but no matter what is decided upon, such work is likely a year, at minimum, away from starting and several years from being completed. Right now, the District needs to deal with the here-and-now, and that means maintaining buildings as best as possible.
The other area of increase comes in the form of the local medical benefits fund. This is usually the portion of the school budget in which administrators can find savings once they received their final number from the Town Council, as the request is almost always more than is needed to cover the costs of claims. However, as school administrators stress each year, taking away from the fund comes with risk. If claims end up costing more than anticipated, and the fund is found to be short, the Town must find a way to fill in the gaps.
How the pandemic will impact those kinds of claims going forward remains uncertain. Many put off routine medical procedures or checkups during the last 10 months so as to avoid overcrowding hospitals or putting themselves in an environment where the virus might be most prevalent. Now, as vaccines are administered and, hopefully, risk of the virus dissipates over the next few months, many may have a renewed focus on their health.
It may leave the Town with no choice but to fund the medical benefits account fully.
So, that’s the conundrum in which the Town finds itself, and that’s not even taking into account the possibility that, if COVID-19 remains a serious concern into next fall, the District may be forced to spend even more money on added mitigation responses.
There are few good choices available to local leaders. Their adaptivity has and will continue to be put to the test. All we know is that the school budget likely gives us an important look into the overall issue facing Cheshire — what to do when more is needed but less is expected to be available.