Significant cuts to personnel and materials are inevitable, according to school officials if the education budget, as proposed by the mayor, is ultimately approved.
And those staffing reductions would be above and beyond the 14 teachers and an administrator to be eliminated under the Board of Education’s requested budget of $74,873,730, a $2.17 million, or 2.99 percent, hike from this year’s budget.
Mayor Mark Lauretti’s budget calls for the school budget to remain funded at $72,700,000 — no change from the present fiscal year’s budget. Last month, Lauretti announced his total proposed budget of $127,569,660, which, if approved as proposed, would result in a mill rate of 22.62, a 2.12 percent increase from last year’s 22.15.
“We will do our best to look for the least damaging changes we can make, but there is no way to cut $2.17 million from our budget for next year without cutting meat and bone from our structure,” said Board of Education Chairman Mark Holden on Wednesday, April 10, before a joint meeting of the Board of Apportionment & Taxation (A&T) and the Board of Aldermen.
School Superintendent Dr. Chris Clouet and school Finance Director Richard Belden presented the school board’s budget during the joint session, and city officials focused their attention on staffing reductions, proposed spending on special education and transportation, and establishing better communication between school officials and city leaders.
“We should be holding each other responsible for sharing that team effort "and the way we do that should be to share information and examine new concepts, programs, ideas throughout the year, not just at budget time,” said Board of Aldermen President John Anglace. “I am optimistic that the new budget format and the proposed BOE budget adoption meeting, quarterly budget and year-end review will produce better results and more open communication.”
Anglace said that the education budget format, prepared by Belden, is a step in the right direction, but city leaders “expected to receive (the BOE) budget in the same format as the city budget showing current year activity with full backup details for each item. Without that backup, our evaluation will be more difficult. We ask your continued cooperation to make this happen.”
Holden said education is the single largest expense of any community, and that the Board of Education is a good steward of taxpayer dollars.
“I’m also pleased the Board of Education and Board of Aldermen have an agreement to meet on a quarterly basis in the future,” said Holden. “I’ve heard some elected officials claim the Board of Education mismanages money. I find that truly frustrating. The reality is that Shelton has one of the lowest tax rates in Connecticut. For that very reason the Board of Aldermen is forced to give us one of the lowest budgets per student in the state.”
Holden told city officials that the Board of Education is presently looking at alternative options — such as finding savings in the area of medical insurance — but additional staff reductions will “probably be necessary.”
The Board of Education is also considering finding savings, said Holden, by closing school buildings on weekends and before dinner on weekdays.
“This doesn’t hurt classrooms, but it does hurt our goal of developing the whole student,” said Holden. “Scouts, indoor sports including the rec leagues, drama and music programs, STEM and literacy nights, and our robotics program are just some of the activities that would probably be hurt.”
There was little in the way of specific line item questions, but more general discussions on impacts to staffing, transportation and materials if no increase was given.
School officials also asked if the aldermen if they would again purchase Chromebooks and textbooks, a $700,000 impact on the education budget, out of city funds. Anglace said his board is considering the request but cannot answer as of yet “given the uncertainties of the state budget demands and fiscal restraints facing the city.”
Michelle Laubin of A&T asked Clouet about the impact of teacher reductions and which schools would be impacted. Clouet responded that it would be a “shared sacrifice” with teachers eliminated from each of the schools but also removal of specialists and clerical staff as well.
“When I started in 2016, every year we’ve reduced the number of teachers. We are continuing to do that, but you can only do that to a certain point,” said Clouet.
Clouet said the school budget includes adding a school psychologist — which the superintendent said is essential in an age where so many more children are facing higher anxiety — and program “enhancements,” such as Project Lead the Way, a nationally recognized engineering course at the middle school and high school levels which has helped Shelton students get accepted into some of the top engineering universities in the country.
“This is not a frill,” said Clouet.
Clouet said he would prefer not to be proposing any staff reductions — and final decisions will have to be made once the budget is finished next month — but the outcome will be increases class sizes.
“There is no way around that,” said Clout. “We’ve been reducing administrators, we’ve been reducing teachers over last several years. We’re at a point where we just can’t keep on doing it. This 14.5 will really hurt, but if we ended up with, as I’ve heard proposed, no increase, it will make that number much larger and much more difficult.”
Clouet said that if staff reductions end up more than the 14.5 eliminations proposed, “we will not be talking being in the top 25 percent (among state schools in SAT and SBAC scores), we’ll be talking about just keeping major services intact.”
Laubin then asked about the transportation budget number of $3.1 million, more than $1 million less than this past fiscal year, when Durham had the contract to bus local students to school. The city, in a settlement agreement with the schools last year, will assume control of the school transportation duties for that price.
Mayor Mark Lauretti has stated that he believes the transportation can be done for that amount, saying that it would be “on him” if there is a cost overrun, with those funds coming from city coffers.
When asked if the school board has seen a final plan, detailing how the city plans to hire drivers and conduct bus maintenance, Holden told those in attendance that he has not seen such a plan.
“Why do you think the cost of transportation will be that substantially less?” asked Laubin, to which Clouet stated that $3.1 million number was specifically proposed by the city.
“What does this have to do with numbers?” asked Anglace about Laubin’s transportation questioning.
“It has to do with is ‘Is that a realistic number?’” responded Laubin.
“It is a realistic number because we are guaranteeing it, and not only this year, but ongoing,” said Anglace. “We’ve taken the profit out of the process.”
Laubin said she would be interested in seeing the mayor’s final plan, and Clouet added that the school administration wants to work closely with the city on provding all the necessary information about the busing, which the city will officially take over on July 8.
“We not only made that commitment to you, but we made that commitment to the court, and we are prepared to keep that commitment,” said Anglace. “That frees up $1 million for you to spend someplace else. If you grabbed this deal last year, you would have saved $1 million last year.”
Anglace was referring to the city’s desire to assume control of student transportation prior to the present school year. The school board did not go forward with a deal with the city, which led to city officials filing legal action against the Board of Education. The subsequent settlement between the city and school board provided city control of busing at the cost of $3.1 million to the Board of Education for the 2019-2020 school year.
“There are a lot of people here who would like to see and know that their children will be safe and cared for on the buses,” said Laubin.
The debate on the transportation issue led Alderman Jim Capra to read a statement, calling for an end to what he termed “toxic” fighting among city and school officials.
Capra credited Lauretti for having done a “phenomenal job,” working alongside a “great team” with the Board of Aldermen of making the city affordable for all ages. Capra added that Shelton should be proud to have a superintendent like Clouet, who he says “cares deeply” for the city’s students.
“This back and forth toxic fighting needs to stop,” said Capra. “This constant going to the newspapers and social media and bashing needs to stop. Division is pushing us farther apart. Egos need to be put aside — as well as years and years of bitterness and hurt aside — and we need to work together.
“Dr. Clouet and Mayor Lauretti, sometimes in business and in politics, we need to hit the reset button and start fresh again. I hope for the people of the city this can happen sooner rather than later,” added Capra.
brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com