School budget: Pay-to-play to go away in budget compromise?

School officials have offered a fallback position that would give them less money than originally requested in the new budget but still allow for implementation of full-day kindergarten.

They also said they would eliminate pay-to-participate fees for students if the Board of Education (BOE) receives a certain level of funding.

During a budget workshop with the Board of Apportionment and Taxation (A&T), school officials said full-day kindergarten would still be possible if the school system receives a $2.75 million increase and the city assumes the cost of buying propane for school buses during the next budget year.

This year propane for the buses is expected to cost about $400,000, or about twice as much as was budgeted.

“Our parents really want full-day kindergarten,” School Supt. Freeman Burr said.

Mayor reduced school board request

School officials have requested an increase of $3.5 million, or 5.4%, but Mayor Mark Lauretti has reduced that to $2 million, or 3%, in his recommended budget. The mayor’s proposal would leave the tax rate unchanged.

“I’m here for the $1.5 million,” Burr said of the funds cut by Lauretti, explaining that the BOE’s lower, alternative request was being floated ”if we have to get to a better place.”

‘Meet you halfway’

BOE Chairman Mark Holden defended the compromise request, noting it would mean new positions deemed necessary by the BOE wouldn’t be filled to save money.

“We understand Shelton is a community that values its low taxes, so we’re going to try to meet you halfway,” Holden said.

BOE officials said if they get a $2.75-million increase, they could eliminate the unpopular pay-to-participate (or “pay-to-play”) fees now used for sports, clubs and other extracurricular activities.

About a third of the extra $750,000 needed would come from unspent money in the city’s “Youth Services” line item, an approach Burr said that Lauretti supports if pay-to-participate fees go away.

A&T will vote next on the budget, followed by the Board of Aldermen. Many aldermen attended the A&T workshop that focused exclusively on education funding issues.

The new fiscal year begins July 1. The current BOE budget is $65.6 million.

Full-day kindergarten costs

Burr described starting full-day K as “our No. 1 goal,” and said $406,000 in operating funds was needed to do that.

The program would cost $986,000, but $580,000 would be found by re-allocating five teachers from the elementary level and having the city pay for furniture and equipment outside the operating budget.

Being able to re-allocate teaching positions needed for full-day K from elementary grades due to declining enrollment in 2014-15, Burr said, means “this is the year it’s reachable.”

A full-day program would provide more time for both academics and social interaction, with 350 minutes a day compared to the current 175 minutes. Students now are “exhausted” with the half-day schedule because so much must be crammed into the shorter session, Burr said.

Louis Dagostine, A&T member, said “the data supporting full-day kindergarten is overwhelming.”

Special education costs

Burr said $325,000 also is needed to add three special education staff members, which he argued saves the city money.

He said Shelton schools have kept special ed costs from skyrocketing by offering as many services as possible within the district, which is less expensive than using outside facilities.

Burr said state law requires that special ed students receive certain services, and if the school system doesn’t get the needed special ed money in the budget he therefore will be forced to reduce other programs.

Some resistance

John F. Anglace Jr., aldermanic president, was upset because he said the BOE has essentially committed to starting full-day K despite problems in its current budget, such as higher energy costs and special education challenges.

Holden countered that full-day K will save money in the long term by cutting down on the remedial help needed by students as they advance through the system.

“I don’t buy it,” responded Anglace, who said the BOE’s requested budget increase wasn’t “realistic” in the current economy.

Burr countered that the city can afford to increase school spending, based on its fiscal condition. “I think Shelton is capable of funding the full amount, if they have the will,” he said.

'That's bull'

A few aldermen pointed out the city has paid for many education-related items outside the school budget in recent years, such as the new propane buses, technology improvements, Perry Hill School library materials, and building and ball field upgrades.

“I’m tired of hearing we don’t fund [school] requests,” Alderman Eric McPherson said. “That’s bull.”

But Alderman Jack Finn, the only Democrat on that board, pointed out the city just announced a $7-million surplus. Finn said the city also has almost $12 million in its undesignated fund balance, which he called another “surplus” in a separate account.

Lower costs, good reults

Burr and Holden pointed out Shelton schools get good academic results with less funding than many nearby suburbs.

They said Shelton spends $1,300 less per pupil than the combined average of Monroe, Oxford and Trumbull. Shelton spends $12,440 per student.

They said the school system has received much less than requested in recent years. For the four years prior to the current fiscal year, Burr said, the schools had requested a total increase of $7.4 million and received only $731,000 — or 1% of their request.