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BLOOMFIELD — The Board of Education unanimously approved a $53 million budget for Bloomfield Public Schools Thursday, an 8.8 percent increase over the previous budget, without a single parent in the audience.
Bloomfield Public Schools, known for trailing test scores despite spending significantly more per student than the state average, has consistently increased its budget since the 2014-15 school year, but this year's 8.8 percent increase is the largest single-year increase.
"It's the first time I haven't seen a myriad of parents here," said Board of Education member Howard Frydman at Thursday's meeting. "We love to see our parents. We invited them to come. And we continue to invite you to be with us."
Several factors drove the increase, including a 38 percent increase in the cost for special education transportation. The cost of special education support staff also increased 2.3 percent. Additionally, the cost of "facility supplies" has increased due to inflation, resulting in a 28 percent increase in the budget.
Bloomfield spends $21,496 per pupil per year, according to state data from the 2021-22 school year. The state average is $19,134 per student.
The special meeting, intended as a public hearing, lasted 25 minutes and two Bloomfield residents, neither of whom were parents, spoke out against the sharp budget increase. One was skeptical a budget increase was necessary when student performance continues to stagnate or decline.
"Our school system has consistently requested additional funding that has led neither to improved performance or to the removal of Bloomfield from the state's list of low performing schools," said Kevin Gough, one of the two Bloomfield residents who spoke during public comment.
In grades three through eight, 35.7 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in English/language arts in the 2021-22 school year. Just 20.8 percent met or exceeded expectations in math that year, both numbers reflecting a decline in mastery from the year before.
Board of Education member Robert Ike took issue with the accusation that the board did not care about test scores and shouted his disapproval.
"Everyone here is aware of the test scores," Ike said Thursday. "Every board member. We are not trying to hide anything. We know we have some deficiencies. We are trying to move ahead. I am not here to hide nothing from nobody."
The high number of students in Bloomfield designated as "high needs," as well as the increasing number of students leaving the district for costly outplacements or magnet schools, could be driving up the budget.
Superintendent James Thompson addressed the problem of outplacements in the first paragraph of his budget proposal document.
"Developing the 2023-2024 district budget represented a significant challenge as there were increases associated with out of district tuition costs, transportation and health insurance," Thompson wrote.
Over 65 percent of the students in Bloomfield are considered high needs, according to state data from 2021-22. High needs means the student has a disability, is an English learner or is eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Approximately 20 percent of the student body is considered a "student with a disability."
Currently, the district is spending $2.39 million to send 417 students to out-of-town magnet schools that charge the district tuition. The district also currently pays tuition for 43 out-of-district placements for students with disabilities.
The 2023-24 budget passed Thursday accounts for 24 additional students requiring special education services while attending magnet schools. The total cost of tuition for special education services and magnet schools totaled $6.8 million, a 46 percent increase from the previous school year.
The district shared news about the meeting in a few ways, according to a spokesperson for the district. There are notifications on the Town of Bloomfield website and the Office of the Town Clerk website and an agenda is posted in a glass case in the Board of Education office.
Additionally, the meeting information is posted on the district's website and calendar. A brief about the meeting ran in The Bloomfield Messenger. Lastly, the Feb. 23 superintendent's weekly update included information about the meeting later that night.
A lack of public input is not unique to the budget process. A perusal of meeting minutes from the past several months show that since June, there have been only two public comments at regular meetings other than the two non-parents who spoke against the budget Thursday.
One of the comments was in support of the track team and the other was about the upcoming musical. No meeting in this time period has lasted longer than an hour and 25 minutes, but the budget meeting Thursday was the shortest.
Next, the budget will advance to the Town Council for approval. In the previous year's budget season, the Town Council and Board of Education have agreed on school expenditures, but Mayor Danielle Wong did not speculate on how the council would act this year.