Mayor: No increase for ed budget

As school administrators continue crafting next year’s budget request, Shelton’s top city official offered some advice — do not ask for more money.

Mayor Mark Lauretti told The Shelton Herald Tuesday, when asked about the schools seeking a 2019-20 fiscal year operating budget which could include a 2.99%, that he would not grant any such bump from the present year’s $72.5 million budget.

“They are not getting an increase,” said Lauretti. “This is a superintendent and a board that cannot manage money. Until someone holds them accountable, (the school board and superintendent) are not getting any more money. This is the first time in 28 years that I have taken this position.”

School Superintendent Dr. Chris Clouet, who is presently crafting a budget proposal, which could go before the Board of Education next Wednesday, said he has not heard directly from the mayor or mayor’s office on this issue.

“I’m not sure what his thinking is on that,” said Clouet, “but what is not true, the false notion, is that we don’t handle our money well. We are audited every year. It is a transparent process for all to see. I think it is getting a little stale to constantly repeat what is just not true.”

Board of Education Chair Mark Holden also takes issue with Lauretti’s statement on the board’s financial abilities.

“If we’re in top 26% for student achievement for grades K through 8, and we have one of lowest levels of funding in the state, how can we be mishandling money?” asked Holden.

Holden said that, no matter the mayor’s present stance, the Board of Education still needs to prepare to present a reasonable proposal and be ready to vigorously support the request with facts.

“Frankly, while (Lauretti’s) saying that is his plan, we still need to make the case for a responsible request,” said Holden. “The 2.99% (increase) discussed by the superintendent still requires some cuts. We need to come in with a request and make the case that this isn't pie in the sky, it’s not a wish list, it’s what we think we need to take care of the needs of our students.”

Lauretti also added that he does not plan to let the school board dig into the city’s general fund to cover the present fiscal year’s budget, if it were slip into a deficit.

“They have a responsibility to stay within their budget,” said Lauretti. “I have never had a board or superintendent overspend their budget like this one. They have to be held accountable for that. They are going to disagree with me, but when they can give themselves handsome pay increases, which the superintendent has, and make families participate in pay to play, that’s just wrong.”

Lauretti said the Board of Education has a “$74 million budget and a declining enrollment.

“They don’t manage money because no one holds them accountable,” said the mayor.

Lauretti, who as mayor has veto power on the budget, did not rule out such an action if any increase comes across his desk he feels in untenable.

“I always reserved right to use it,” said Lauretti. “I have never had to, but you never know. This is a superintendent and a Board of Education that does not manage money well.”

Clouet is presently crafting a budget which would call for an estimated $2.2 million (2.99%) increase over the city-approved $72.7 million for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

“It is more than we’ve received in the past,” said Clouet. “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 said that 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.

The budget numbers for 2019-20, just maintaining current services, call 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.