Remote learning, COVID factors helped Danbury schools save $2.8 million last year

DANBURY — The school district saved about $2.8 million last fiscal year largely due to remote learning and lower insurance costs during the coronavirus pandemic.

That surplus is expected to go into the city’s reserve funds that the schools may use if necessary for technology, special education, insurance and general contingency, said John Spang, Jr., finance director. There is already close to $10 million in the reserves, he said.

The savings account for 2.1 percent of the more than $135 million budget.

This is the second year in a row where the school district has had a surplus due to COVID-19 changing the way students were educated. But with students back full-time in the classrooms, there’s few lessons to be learned for future budget years, Spang said.

“It’s really difficult to take away anything from this year that will help us I think build the next budget in a couple months,” he said to the school board’s finance committee on Tuesday evening. “It really was a second year in a row — to call it atypical is an understatement. It’s very unusual times.”

Richard Jannelli, chairman of the finance committee, argued the surplus isn’t a sign of poor budgeting.

“The last two years being COVID years, I think its a practical explanation where you would have large variances, particularly in these line numbers,” he said.

Danbury school officials and families have argued for more city and state funding toward education

The district saved the most on health insurance because fewer staff members had surgeries or went to doctor’s or dentist appointments due to COVID, Spang said. At year’s end, $3.4 million of the projected $25 million health and dental budget was unused.

However, the district needed to spend about $520,000 more than expected to upgrade technology. The district had help from grants to purchase items like Chromebooks, but that didn’t cover everything, Spang said.

“Teachers needed things in their classrooms so they could communicate with the kids, whether it was little cameras or things to set up, microphones, all that, as well as more computers for them and for the staff,” he said.

Custodial salaries went over budget by more than $244,000 because because of increased cleaning, he said.

Remote and hybrid learning meant lower costs for bus services. The district also saved on transportation because there were fewer sports games, field trips and after-school activities. There was $630,000 left over in the $10.2 million transportation budget by the end of the year.

Fewer special education tutors were used when students were home, so $340,000 remained from that $4.4 million budget, according to Spang’s report.

Danbury had a $483,000 balance in its substitute teacher budget because fewer substitute teachers were needed on hybrid and remote instruction, he said. Plus, there was a statewide sub shortage.

School officials have already met with the city’s finance director to coordinate putting the savings into “rainy day funds,” Superintendent Kevin Walston said. This is a longstanding practice for the district, he said.

Danbury’s auditors need to review the prior year’s budget before the money could go into the reserves. The auditors should complete their work in November or December, Spang said.

A $2.44 million surplus from the 2019-20 budget was split into four reserve accounts last year. About $911,000 of the money went into a contingency fund for “unplanned expenditures,” with almost $532,000 going toward a health insurance reserve, according to the report.

Another $500,000 went into an account for technology initiatives, such as new software, hardware, technical training and infrastructure. The final $500,000 could be used for unexpected costs to place special education students in other school districts.

“This is a very smart move I think which is to set aside some money for those,” Spang said of the special education fund. “If you haven’t, they can really be difficult to deal with.”