Budget hearing: Residents seek more school spending

David Ferrara was one of a handful of Shelton High students who spoke in favor of increasing funding to the school budget. — Brian Gioiele/Hearst Connecticut Media

Some 70 residents converged on City Hall Monday, May 13, to urge the Board of Aldermen provide more funds to the coming year’s school budget.

Mayor Mark Lauretti’s budget plan keeps the school budget at $72,700,000, same as the present year, but municipal leaders state that the Board of Education is receiving an extra $1.5 million, thanks to the city taking over the school bus transportation. The Board of Education had sought $74,873,730.

Residents’ calls for more education spending comes days after the Board of Apportionment & Taxation recommended a $128.5 million budget — some $930,000 more than Lauretti’s $127.6 million plan — with the major driver being an additional $408,701 in the school budget.

A&T also recommended that the Board of Aldermen cover $814,217 in the city budget for new textbooks and technology.

Rich Naylor speaking at the Board of Aldermen’s budget public hearing Monday, May 13. — Brian Gioiele/Hearst Connecticut Media

Both the mayor’s and the A&T’s proposed mill rates would result in tax increases for property owners. At 22.62 mills, Lauretti’s proposal would raise taxes by 2.12 percent while the A&T’s proposed mill rate of 22.82 would raise them by 3 percent.

The Board of Aldermen will hold a budget workshop Monday, May 20, followed by another joint budget workshop with A&T at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 23, at City Hall. Immediately following the joint workshop, the aldermen will adopt the city budget.

More than a dozen residents spoke Monday, calling the city’s education budget inadequate and asking the Board of Aldermen to raise the coming fiscal year’s school funding to not only improve students’ education but also the city’s property values.

“Our greatest natural resources are our kids, and you guys are not helping them,” said William Kelly, adding that the antagonistic attitude — specifically the city’s lawsuit against the school board — between city officials and the Board of Education “doesn’t say much for Shelton.

“You are fighting about money constantly,” said Kelly. “We need to do right by the kids. Some of the people here have been in power a long time and they view this town as theirs. It’s not. It’s our town, and we need to start working together to do the right thing by our children.”

Board of Education member Amanda Kilmartin said that, after years of being told that funding the Board of Education budget means raising taxes, this year’s twist is that the mill rate hike will “not put a single dollar, not a single penny” in the education budget.

“I stand up tonight to implore each of you, as you face this grand, annual budget battle, to not forget the people you are supposed to be fighting for,” said Kilmartin. “That you don’t leave them in the wake of poor decisions. That these people who had the courage to come here and speak to you tonight are not the collateral damage for decisions made in this year’s budget.”

Diana Meyer asked why taxes are rising, when the largest city expenditure is the school budget, yet Lauretti has proposed no increase to that budget?

“Obviously, the tax increase is not due to the increased expense in our school system,” said Meyer. “If you look at the development in Shelton … one would think that this strong commercial influx in town would indicate strong tax revenue, yet, for the first time in 10 years, there is a proposal to increase the mill rate, and I ask why?”

Meyer said some city officials blame the Board of Education for overspending $2.7 million in the special education excess cost grant, but state Department of Education officials have since stated that the school board handled the grant properly and the error was in the city’s accounting practices.

Meyer said that it’s her understanding the surplus a year ago was between $10 million and $12 million. The error with the special education excess cost grant — some $2.7 million — leaves some $7.3 million, said Meyer, and assuming some $4 million used for capital projects, that leaves a $3.3 million surplus.

“But today, I understand the surplus is at zero. How did we get to this zero?” asked Meyer. “One suggestion … is perhaps to get an outside party to do a forensic audit to see exactly what is going on, and I think that would be less costly than going to court, which is what we are proposing now. I just think before we look at raising the mill rate, maybe we should take a closer look at the accounting and figure out what happened this year to get to the zero surplus, so we do not repeat the mistakes we have already made.”

Scott Smith said the district’s per pupil expenditure — $14,864 in 2018, while the state average amounted to some $17,000 — hurts the city’s property values.

“By not funding the Board of Education, we are creating less demand for our homes,” said Smith, adding that saving $200 per year in taxes could ultimately cost between $20,000 and $40,000 in property values.

“If you look around this room, I have not heard one person ask for lower taxes here tonight,” said Smith, adding some say there is a “silent majority” against raising taxes. “Look at the faces, they are all young people or people with young families. We are here tonight because we care. With that said … we really believe in this town. We’re all committed to it. Let’s do the right thing, not just for the kids, for all of us in this town.”

Several students spoke about the lack of basic materials and maintenance at the schools, specifically the high school, that already exists as well as the potential loss of sports, such as girls swimming and field hockey, that would result if the mayor’s proposed budget were approved.

“By not funding our future, we’re setting up the next generation to fail,” said Julia Meyer, a graduating senior at Shelton High, adding that she was “disappointed” in her time in the Shelton public school system because of the apparent lack of support from city officials.

“It is disappointing, as a citizen of this town that city officials who you are supposed to look up to, the Board of Aldermen, the Board of Ed, you guys always seem to communicate through arguments and lawsuits, and that’s really disappointing; we think there needs to be a form of communication and we need to be able to look up to you guys.”

Andrew Connolly, a Shelton High School senior, asked that funding be increased for the school budget. Connolly said that hearing about budget cuts tells students that “you don’t care about us and our future. You don’t care about our dreams, our hopes. You don’t care, and it is as simple as that.”

Connolly said local students fall behind because of the lack of proper, updated resources. He said that there are textbooks that are falling apart and without pages, and some history textbooks so old that there is no mention of 9/11. Connolly also said that there are laptop cards that take 40 minutes to work properly while a class period is 46 minutes.

“Why does this happen? You do not give us, the future of America, the funding we need,” said Connolly.

Connolly echoed the other students’ remarks who spoke Monday, saying that the schools have limited supplies, such as paper.

“The children in this town and the teachers are absolutely amazing,” said Connolly. “Could you imagine, though, what we could do with proper supplies and funding? Our scores would skyrocket. We know the city wants to look good and this would help them look better. So I ask you today, please show us that we matter. Please give us the resources we so desperately need.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com