Clouet eyeing 2.99% budget hike

While nothing is close to final, initial plans call for a proposed school operating budget with a 2.99% hike from the present fiscal year.

School Superintendent Dr. Chris Clouet floated that idea — which would call for an estimated $2.2 million increase over the city-approved $72.7 million for the 2018-19 fiscal year — during the Board of Education budget workshop Wednesday.

“It is more than we’ve received in past,” said Clouet, adding that he and his team would immediately begin crafting a presentation for the Board of Education focused on that number. “We will prioritize and reduce the ‘asks’ we have, all of which are reasonable, into something that would fit into a 2.99% increase.”

Clouet’s budget is not yet complete, and he announced the percent increase in hopes of receiving board guidance as he moves forward in preparing a final budget proposal, which could be voted on at the special Board of Education budget workshop on Jan. 30. There will be two opportunities for public comment during the Jan. 30 meeting. The school’s budget must be filed with the city by Feb. 15.

The Board of Education had spent two meetings examining the overall numbers — including what the school budget would be just maintaining current service levels, before adding in requests made by program directors and principals.

Just remaining at current service levels would increase the 2019-20 operating budget to an estimated $75,590,802, a $2,890,802, or 3.98%, increase. The requests from the program directors and principals would add an additional $2,221,969, or 3.06% hike, on top of the number just to maintain present operating standards. In all, if Clouet and the Board of Education came forward with that total number, the request to the mayor’s office and Board of Aldermen would call for a school budget increase of some 7% over last fiscal year.

“Although I would love ask for essentially what you see here, which amounts to an approximately 7% increase, I don’t think that is something we can legitimately do in terms with engaging with the city,” said Clouet.

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 operating budget of $72.7 million. 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.

Once Clouet completes his formal budget proposal, and it receives board approval, the next step is presenting the budget to the Board of Aldermen, a daunting task, according to Board of Education members.

In describing his strategy, board Chairman Mark Holden said administrators must detail what the initial administrator requests, which, if approved, would result in a dollar amount increase close to the 7% range.

“But recognizing the importance of keeping taxes low and reasonable in Shelton,” said Holden about what he would recommend telling the Aldermen about what could be a 2.99% budget hike, “we, as a board, have prioritized things to bring that number down to a more manageable level. There is no fat here. This is not a wish list. This is what we need.”

The budget numbers for 2019-20, just maintaining current services, calls for hikes of $1.3 million in teachers and administrators salaries, $270,662 for employee benefits, $242,713 in instructional materials and $490,914 in outgoing tuition costs, to name just a few increases. When factoring in requests from program directors and principals — which call for 18 new staffers and increased equipment needs — those numbers jump, $1.2 million for teacher salaries, $388,384 for instructional materials and $353,585 for equipment.

But Clouet admitted that these numbers — taken as a whole — would be difficult, if not impossible to pass through the Board of Aldermen.

“If we continue to get $1 million, $1.2 million each year for five years, for six years, we will be cutting staff, cutting administrators, cutting materials, and we will not be the same school district,” said Clouet. “This is truly an equity question. I ask that we have a vision of what we think kids need, and we need to demand that the city and appropriate authorities have a vision as well. Right now, I am not clear what that vision is, and it cannot just be transactional — what costs more, what costs less. It has to be more than that.”

Clouet said that residents ask their city to “take care of senior citizens, as we should, to take care of the sick and those that have special needs, as we should. We also need to say the children are citizens of this city and also need to be represented by the politicians. They should have equal representation.

“It’s the 21st century, and we want to get into top 25% of school districts,” added Clouet. “We are will move forward, whatever we get, we will do what we need to do, but we need to be fair to the kids, not propaganda. It’s not me standing on a soap box. This is me doing my job.”