Bristol Warren school financial mess — how they got here

With expenses surging, revenues falling and no more one-time fixes, the district faces financial hardship

By Scott Pickering
Posted 3/5/21

How did they get here? Even school insiders have been asking that question for the past couple of weeks, ever since it became clear the Bristol Warren Regional School District is facing a major …

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Bristol Warren school financial mess — how they got here

With expenses surging, revenues falling and no more one-time fixes, the district faces financial hardship

Posted

How did they get here? Even school insiders have been asking that question for the past couple of weeks, ever since it became clear the Bristol Warren Regional School District is facing a major financial crisis.

Though thorough analysis requires a truly deep dive, even a cursory examination of top-level revenues and expenses provides some answers.

If not cut down by lack of funding next year, operational expenses in the district would be rising $5,160,678 in the course of four school years. That’s a 10 percent growth in expenses from the end of the 2017-18 school year to what would be the end of the 2021-22 school year. Of course, that will not actually happen. It seems unlikely the district will get the money it believes it needs.

In fact, the superintendent’s office knew that two weeks ago, and the most it even asked for was a 4 percent increase in the local tax burden — which would have left them $1.9 million short of their needs. Then the Bristol Warren school committee exacerbated the problem by approving only a 3 percent increase — leaving the schools $2.3 million short.

That leaves the administration hoping the Bristol Warren Joint Finance Committee will give them the full 3 percent increase, setting the stage for perhaps dozens of layoffs and cuts to school programs (see separate story).

The steady growth in spending is nothing new, but there’s more happening in the past two years than in previous years. After rising $1.4 million over the course of three school years, the cost of employee salaries is poised to increase $1.2 million next year alone — a figure certain to be chewed up during budget cuts this summer.

After increasing $863,000 over three school years, employee benefits costs are poised to increase $658,000 next year (layoffs will reduce this cost, too).

Those aren’t the only increases. A line item for “Purchased Professional Services” would rise 32 percent (to $1.63 million) over the course of four years if the budget were fully funded; these are outside educators and other professionals not part of the full-time teaching ranks.

A line item for “Purchased Property Services” would be increasing 42 percent (to $978,000) over the course of four years if the budget were fully funded.

The financial woes would be even worse if not for the fact that the district retired about $1 million of annual debt payments last summer. Their debt costs have fallen from $2.6 million annually to $1.6 million.

And then there’s Covid

So far this analysis has not touched on the elephant in the room, the pandemic that walloped everything once considered “normal.” As with all things, Covid had an enormous impact on the district. In the year Covid struck, the district actually saved a lot of money — about $1.95 million. That’s because buildings were closed for more than three months, saving money on utilities, busing, food service and more.

Though bad for education, the pandemic was obviously good for public school finances. It was so good that the school administration decided to roll $1.2 million of its savings into this school year.

Thus, even though the district did not have the annual revenues (mostly property tax dollars and state education aid) to support full operations, it propped up the budget with a one-time infusion of cash.

The federal government chipped in, too. To help school districts with the cost of PPE and other Covid-related measures, the state sent more than $1 million of federal relief funds to the Bristol Warren district this school year.

So the current operating budget is being supported by a combined $2.2 million in one-time funding — that’s 4.1 percent of its current operating expenses.

The fall of state aid

The final setback for the district is the steady erosion of state funding. Assuming the district gets the $12.9 million it expects from the state next year, that will be 17 percent less than it was receiving three years ago. It’s a massive hole that can be filled only two ways: significantly reduce expenses or significantly increase local property taxes.

For those who blame the state for these troubles, there are reasons for the decline. The state has removed the “regionalization bonus” the district received when the two towns merged nearly 30 years ago, and district student enrollment is falling precipitously — would you believe 650 fewer students in the past 20 years?

The Joint Finance Committee may do its own deep dive of these numbers when it meets next week, and it will confront these key takeaways: expenses are surging, revenues are falling, and there are no one-time fixes on the horizon.

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