Shelton budget plan puts school staff, programs in crosshairs

The Board of Education, at its remote meeting April 30, talked budget cuts after receiving no increase in the mayor's proposed budget.

The Board of Education, at its remote meeting April 30, talked budget cuts after receiving no increase in the mayor's proposed budget.

Brian Gioiele / Hearst Connecticut Media

SHELTON — Cuts to staff and programs are inevitable — and will be potentially significant — according to school officials who are being charged with slashing some $2.7 million from the proposed budget.

The Board of Education at its remote meeting April 30 stated it must negotiate with each union and contracted employee to find some financial relief. The board will hold an executive session Wednesday to discuss whether a freeze on raises or furlough days would be the best tack to take in any negotiation.

“It is going to come down to programs and staffing,” said interim Superintendent Beth Smith. “The board will have to decide, do you want extracurriculars or not? Do you want athletics or not?”

Smith said if staff cuts are ordered, all unions will face reductions.

“This is going to hurt everywhere cuts are made,” said Smith, “because for years, we’ve been underfunded. For years, we’ve been cutting, cutting and cutting more, and now it’s going to be, unfortunately, this board’s job to decide what programs we’re completely knocking out.”

In February, the Board of Education voted to approve a $75,083,945 budget — an increase of $2,318,945, or 3.19 percent. The school budget request maintained present services with money set aside for a new pre-K teacher and curriculum writing.

But hopes of any increase were dashed with the financial uncertainty brought by the coronavirus pandemic. Mayor Mark Lauretti has proposed a city budget of $128,182,039 that would essentially be flat funded, with only a $610,565 increase from the present year’s budget, to maintain the present 22.42 mill rate.

“There will not be any increases in budgets,” said Lauretti when he presented his budget. “I am presenting a budget designed to maintain current levels of city services and without causing a major adverse financial impact on our citizens’ households.”

The decision has the Board of Education now scrambling to find some $2.7 million in reductions to bring its education budget number to the $72,765,000 it received for the present fiscal year.

“We have to examine all areas for cuts that have the least impact on the learning process,” said board Chair Kathy Yolish. “These cuts would have to come from all areas including staffing, programs and extracurricular activities. This will be extremely difficult because we know that each of these areas help to make a well-rounded student.

“I know that these scenarios are not what we want to do,” added Yolish. “We unanimously passed a budget in March that we thought to be fair and equitable. We wanted to add additional staffing and budgetary items but didn’t.”

Decisions on cuts became even more difficult when Finance Director Rick Belden told board members that the original approved budget proposal would need to be hiked some $465,000. Belden said the education budget remains fluid, even after the numbers are approved and submitted to the mayor.

Belden said the increase was driven by an increase in the number of special education students entering the district for the 2020-21 fiscal year, Cigna renewal and a recommended hike in the health insurance allocation to meet significantly higher anticipated costs.

“We’re coming off a zero this year,” said Belden. “We’ve already cut a lot of discretionary accounts. We could still cut.

“This zero increase is going to affect delivery of services across the board for the Board of Education and the students,” added Belden. “We’re are going to have to touch staff. We’re going to have to touch programs, touch extracurriculars. This is a big number … $2.7 million … and there is no way we’re touching that with just cutting discretionary stuff.”

Belden said that an across-the-board raise freeze could save some $1.2 million, while furloughs would provide savings but nothing of that magnitude.

Human Resources Director Carole Pannozzo called a raise freeze an “uphill battle,” with furlough days a more feasible option.

“It will be a difficult negotiation,” said Pannozzo. “We can shoot for the longest option, then hope to get something.”

Belden said the major hurdle is special education spending. He said that some 25 percent of the total education budget is required by state and federal special education law.

“It doesn’t mean we don’t look at special education and try to make it as efficient as possible for students and delivery of service,” said Belden. “But at the end of the day, it is 25 percent of the budget we have to spend.”

Yolish asked Belden if there was any “big-ticket” item that, if removed, would help in easing the pain of cutting $2.7 million.

“We could take $50,000 out of instructional supplies, $20,000 here, $10,000 there, $5,000 there … maybe you could have $200,000 or $300,000. I’m not diminishing that, but you will still have to cover $2 million or so,” he said.