Shelton education supporters want more for schools in new budget

Education supporters came out to urge the Board of Aldermen to increase school spending at a public hearing Tuesday night.

“We have to support our teachers — not fire them,” said Adnan Shilleh, a Shelton High School junior, in a reference to possible teacher layoffs.

Fred Turco, a school parent, said shortchanging the education system could lower property values in Shelton and make the city less competitive on a socio-economic basis with neighboring towns that commit more money to their schools.

The aldermen were asked to better fund the Board of Education (BOE) by more than a dozen speakers, including school Supt. Freeman Burr and two BOE members.

Critic: 'I’ve lost confidence'

Ron Pavluvcik was the lone speaker who spoke against more education spending. “I’ve lost confidence in this school system,” he said, arguing teachers aren’t accountable enough and the 80% of the students in the middle — not those at the top or the bottom academically — aren’t being challenged enough.

“Our test scores are nothing to brag about,” Pavluvcik said.
Almost all speakers at the City Hall session focused on school spending, with other comments made on conservation and senior center staffing.

About 75 people attended the hearing, which lasted about 90 minutes.

Extra help

Lori McKeon, a school parent, countered Pavluvcik’s comments by saying not adequately funding the BOE hurts the 80% of students he is most concerned about. She said they need the extra help that isn’t there when budgets are reduced.

“These are the kids that suffer,” McKeon said.

Mark Holden, Republican BOE chairman, said it’s time to end the “us vs. them mentality” that overtakes the budget process when it comes to funding schools every year. “It’s time for us to start respecting each other,” he said.

Holden said the BOE runs a frugal operation, and tried to counter any perceptions otherwise. “We are very careful with taxpayer dollars,” he said.

Since fiscal year 2005-06, Holden said, spending on the city side of government is up 40% compared to 24% on the BOE side. “So your budget has grown more than ours,” he told aldermen.

The school district must contend with more unfunded mandates and rising special education enrollment and needs, Holden said.

Surplus funds

Joseph Knapik, a Democratic member of the Board of Apportionment and Taxation (A&T), said the city has plenty of money in its fund balance — or accumulated surpluses — to provide the BOE with what it needs without hurting the city’s finances or credit rating.

“So why the constant battle with the BOE?” Knapik asked.

Bryan Vasser, a school parent, said teacher layoffs would negatively affect the quality of education his children receive. “It seems like [the BOE does] a lot with the money they have,” he said.

The numbers

Republican Mayor Mark Lauretti proposed a $120.7-million budget that would keep the tax rate unchanged while overall spending would increase by 1.7%, including a 2.2% jump for the schools.

The Board of A&T then added $200,000 to the city side of the budget but took no action on the education request due to a 3-3 split between Republicans and Democrats.

The GOP-controlled Board of Aldermen will vote on the budget later this month, and set the new tax rate for the next fiscal year that begins July 1.

The BOE has asked for a $4.25-million increase, A&T Democrats wanted to give it a $3.25-million increase, and Lauretti and A&T Republicans support a $1.5-million increase. The BOE has said it probably needs more than $3 million to avoid possible teacher and staff layoffs.

Burr said at the hearing the BOE wants to be sure it gets enough that teachers remain in the classroom “and not at home collecting unemployment.”

Seeking ‘facts’ on mayor's amount

Michele Bialek, a school parent and active Democrat, questioned how Lauretti came up with his $1.5-million figure as a BOE budget increase. “I’ve not seen any facts” to justify that amount, she said.

She contrasted that with the BOE spending request, which she called “very detailed” and “very spelled out.”

Like many others, Bialek said the city could afford to give more to the schools without raising taxes.

Burr thanked aldermen for supporting full-day kindergarten, new technology and infrastructure upgrades, but said he was “dismayed” he hasn’t been given the chance to discuss the BOE request in detail with aldermen or Lauretti in recent weeks.

Burr and Holden noted the Shelton BOE spends considerably less per pupil, including for special education students, than the statewide average.

Positive impact

A few speakers spoke about how Shelton teachers had positively impacted them or family members, including with special education services.

Adnan Shilleh, the SHS junior, said sometimes local government must raise more revenue to make a town more desirable through a better school system. “Education is an investment worth making,” he said.

His twin brother, Zak, said many teachers spent extra time to help him when he took special education classes while younger. “If these cuts do go through, how would other kids like me be able to succeed?” Zak said.

Some audience members were upset that aldermanic President John Anglace asked Zak to wrap up his presentation. He was the last speaker.

Lisbeth Olsen Condo told Anglace that Zak was poorly treated by being told to stop while sharing his life experiences.

On other matters, Conservation Commission Chairman Tom Harbinson asked that the conservation agent’s position go from part-time to full-time, and resident Judson Crawford requested that the senior center bookkeeper’s position be made full-time.