BOE in for tough cuts ahead

While nothing is finalized, preliminary school budget numbers reinforce that Shelton’s top educators will face some difficult cuts in the coming weeks.

The Board of Education, at its first budget workshop Wednesday, Jan. 9, received requests from the school principals and department heads, who, for the first time, were acting under a “zero-based” budget, meaning no numbers were “carried forward” from the $72.7 million operating budget approved by the city for the 2018-19 school year.

“There are specific details proposed by the leadership team, which consists of principals and program directors,” said school Superintendent Dr. Chris Clouet, “and they, after many years of feeling underfunded in relationship to comparable districts, have asked for additional materials and in some cases staffing to meet the learning goals of our children.”

While the requests from the staff are by no means final, the main budget drivers — such as staff salaries, health insurance, special education costs and student transportation — will all see a significant of increase over the previous year’s budget.

Documents presented to the board show that, according to preliminary estimates, certified and classified salaries — which account for more than half the overall school budget annually — will increase $2,066,000, a 2.8% hike; health insurance will jump by $600,000, a 0.8% hike; and special education, considering these costs are running $1.1 million more than projected in 2018-19, will rise $1 million, a 1.4% hike.

Textbook and technology costs, if included, would cost some $727,000, as would the cost of new staffing, if those requests from the principals and program directors were to be placed in the superintendent’s final budget request.

All together, these numbers would constitute a $5 million hike from last year’s budget, however, Clouet said this “not something we are going to do. What we have tonight is not the superintendent’s budget.”

One area that remains a mystery, at least according to school administrators, is transportation. Under an agreement between the city and Board of Education, the city will assume control of transportation, but Clouet told the board Wednesday that no plan has been submitted by the city, so at this point no real costs can be estimated — which has led the preliminary documents list transportation as “TBD,” to be determined.

Clouet said the numbers presented Wednesday are strictly preliminary, and debate over the staff requests as well as the these accounts will be held at the coming budget workshops on Jan. 16 and 30, both at 6:30 p.m. at the administration office. Clouet’s final budget will not be presented until later this month, with the Board of Education planning to vote on it at its Jan. 30 meeting. The school budget must be presented to the city by Feb. 15.

Clouet said the board has received all this raw data so all will see what will be lost in forming the superintendent’s budget in a way it can receive city approval. Wednesday’s presentation included all school budget requests and ultimate city approvals over the past decade.

“You will have all the detail, which is especially important so you can see what will not be funded,” said outgoing school Finance Director Ed Drapp, “unless you are prepared to fund a budget that is substantially higher in terms of an annual increase than what the city has supported over the last couple years. You will see exactly what is coming out of the budget to arrive at the final number.”

Over the past 10 years, the school budget has increased an average of 1.45% annually. Last year, the city approved the 2018-19 school budget at $72.7 million operating budget. The school board had requested an additional $2,848,407, a 3.99% increase, from its 2017-18 budget, but the city kept the increase from the 2017-18 to $1,230,000, or a 1.72% increase over the previous year. To offset $347,000 in expenses that the city and state did not cover, the district instituted a pay-for-play program, started charging tuition to some students attending preschool and a fee to parents whose children attend magnet schools.

Clouet told the board that 16 building-based curriculum leaders, eight principals, three special education administrators, two curriculum directors and five program directors were given a “blank page” and told to make their requests.

“Our overarching goal as a district is to make Shelton public schools one of the 25% schools in the state as measured by SPAC and SAT scores,” said Clouet. “We are fully cognisant that school and life is about much more than testing, but that is one of the metrics people understand and it seems like a reasonable North Star. I think we can do it. But to do that, we need to build our team a little further, and that’s we’re going to discuss in the next several sessions.”

The impact of what school officials have called the “underfunding” of Shelton schools has been increased class sizes; hundreds of students not received reading and math support; reliance on each school’s PTO for fundraising for basic school needs; creation of programs like pay-to-participate; and deferred maintenance resulting in personal injury and property damage.