Shelton aldermen OK budget: No tax hike, but full-day K uncertain

The Board of Aldermen on Thursday night approved a $118.1 million budget that will mean no tax increase — but also could mean no full-day kindergarten when school begins in the fall.

The approved budget appears to set the education budget at about $67.85 million, which is $245,000 more than recommended by Mayor Mark Lauretti but $161,000 less than suggested by the Board of Apportionment and Taxation.

The budget was approved 6-2, with Republican Noreen McGorty and Democrat Jack Finn voting in opposition. They questioned where the specific funds could be found in the budget to pay for full-day kindergarten.

“It’s not clear we’re fully funding full-day kindergarten...You have to show me the numbers,” McGorty said.

McGorty and Finn were countering comments made by aldermanic President John F. Anglace Jr., who said the school funding level — combined with some other money outside the approved budget — is enough for the Board of Education (BOE) to implement full-day K.

“There’s enough money there — the job can be done,” said Anglace, adding that the aldermen are committed to making full-day K happen but it’s up to BOE to do that.

McGorty questions the numbers

“I’m trying to decipher, is that really happening?” McGorty said while repeatedly asking where the extra money for full-day K was located in the proposed budget.

“I don’t come up with the numbers,” she said, suggesting perhaps the budget vote could be delayed to better understand whether full-day kindergarten was being funded.

Finn said the final budget version seemed to include money intended to eliminate pay-to-play but not to fund full-day kindergarten.

“What we are being asked tonight is to vote to add money for sports when we all know there is a greater need for something in the classroom,” Finn said in a reference to both pay-to-play and full-day K.

Not offering full-day kindergarten for all Shelton youngsters, Finn said, puts them at “a disadvantage.”

Stable tax rate

The new fiscal year will begin July 1. The tax rate will remain at 22.31 mills, which means people will continue to pay $2,231 in taxes per $100,000 in assessed real estate value.

Anglace said the final 2014-15 budget once again “demonstrates our ability to work together for Shelton taxpayers” by keeping taxes stable and ensuring that Shelton remains an affordable community.

He noted this is happening at a time with both a challenging economic climate and limited growth in the city’s tax base.

Anglace complimented the BOE for trying to get spending under control. “We have challenged the BOE to reign in spending — and to their credit they have done that,” Anglace said.

The BOE originally had requested a 5.4% spending increase, but will get 3.4%, based on the aldermen's vote. Lauretti has proposed giving the BOE about a 3% increase.

School officials have said full-day K would cost about $950,000 in its first year, but they only need from $350,000 to $450,000 in new operating money to pay for the program.

BOE chairman: Full-day K now ‘unlikely’

After the budget vote, BOE Chairman Mark Holden said the school funding level not only means full-day kindergarten was unlikely to happen, but that pay-to-play may not go away and a few teaching positions could have to be eliminated.

“The budget they just [approved] looks nothing like what we said was the minimum needed for full-day kindergarten,” Holden said.

Holden said the aldermen-backed budget may actually provide the BOE will less money than what was proposed by Lauretti, based on the fact Lauretti had included $500,000 in capital funds for the school system to use on miscellaneous non-operating expenses.

“As much as we want full-day kindergarten, it’s very unlikely it will happen,” Holden said.

Pay-to-play fees may remain

Holden said it’s also probable the BOE “won’t be able to make the change in pay-to-play” with its new budget allocation, because the school system’s primary responsibility is to educate children and not to provide them with extracurricular opportunities such as sports and clubs.

Pay-to-play involves the unpopular fees charged for intermediate school and high school students to participate in most sports and other after-school activities.

The BOE might even be facing the need “to lay a teacher or two off” in the upcoming school year, Holden said.

He said the BOE will look at the approved budget in detail in the coming days to better understand its ramifications.

Teacher retirements, dental fund, propane

Anglace and some other aldermen insisted the BOE will have the funds “to make full-day kindergarten a reality” and eliminate pay-to-play fees.

They said this includes a possible $390,000 from teacher early retirement savings, $212,000 from an unused BOE dental insurance reserve fund, and $226,000 to help the BOE pay higher than expected propane costs for school buses in the current fiscal year.

In addition, $245,000 will be moved from the city’s Youth Programs budget line item to the BOE side of the budget with the intention to eliminate pay-to-play. “We’ll give it to them and they can do what they want with it,” Anglace said.

They pointed out the budget includes $200,000 in capital costs on the city side for new furniture and equipment for full-day kindergarten classrooms.

Anglace said the BOE also should be realizing savings in bus transportation costs because the city purchased a new fleet of propane-powered buses for the school system to use.

There’s ‘a sufficient amount of money’

“All these numbers, we added up,” said Alderman John P. Papa, who worked closely with Anglace on finalizing the budget. Papa said there would “be a sufficient amount of money we’d pass on the BOE” to pay for full-day K.

In response, Finn said some of that extra money would be needed by the BOE “for other expenses that pop up,” such as rising energy costs for buildings.

Alderman Anthony F. Simonetti agreed with Anglace and Papa, saying the money was there for full-day K.

“No one is against full-day kindergarten,” said Simonetti, while pointing out the aldermen and mayor can’t tell the BOE how to specifically spend its budget allocation, based on state law.

Alderman Lynn Farrell asked for re-assurance that the budget was sufficient for full-day K because that’s “very important to me,” and was given such assurance by Anglace.

Lauretti: ‘I’ve heard this for 20-plus years’

Lauretti said the BOE always says it won’t be able to do certain things unless it receives the budget it requested in full. “I’ve heard this for 20-plus years,” he said.

The school system is receiving substantial budget increases at the same time its enrollment is declining, he said.

Lauretti emphasized the budget is a moving target, and on both the BOE and city side, “numbers change dramatically during the course of the year.”

The mayor said the BOE must manage its funding well. “There will have to be constant scrutiny in how the money is spent,” he said.