Shelton educators, parents plead for school funding at budget hearing

Exterior of Shelton City Hall, in Shelton, Conn. Jan. 11, 2021.

Exterior of Shelton City Hall, in Shelton, Conn. Jan. 11, 2021.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

SHELTON — Ever mounting special education costs have school officials calling on the Board of Aldermen to find additional funding for the coming year’s school budget.

Only four people spoke at the aldermen’s public hearing on the proposed 2022-23 budget — which stands at $129 million and includes a mill rate of 17.47, or more than 4.5 mills less than this year — but each asked that more money be made available to the Board of Education in the coming year.

“We are in a crisis with education. There’s a lot of rising costs,” said Suzanne Adan, a parent of three children in Shelton schools and a former teacher.

The number before the Board of Aldermen is virtually identical to what Mayor Mark Lauretti proposed in March. The Board of Apportionment and Taxation voted 4-2 to approve Lauretti’s budget proposal, with only a minor adjustment that had no impact on the mill rate change.

The largest portion of the city’s budget is the Board of Education. For the coming year, Lauretti proposed allocating the schools just over $75 million, a $1.5 million increase over the present budget but less than the school board’s requested $76.8 million.

To maintain present staff and programs, school Finance Director Todd Heffelfinger has stated that the 2022-23 fiscal year budget would need to be $75.7 million, a $2.2 million increase from the present year and about $700,000 more than Lauretti recommended.

The major concern, according to Board of Education Chair Kathy Yolish, remains the special education budget, which is some $2 million over budget this fiscal year as 91 new students requiring special education have moved into the district since July 1, 2021.

The district has imposed a freeze on some spending in order to help cover the overage, but that will not help next year as these special education costs are expected to continue to rise, Superintendent Ken Saranich said.

Adan said the city must fund general education as special education costs are so difficult to predict. She said her children attend Sunnyside School, and two are in kindergarten, which she said has class sizes of nearly 30.

“They are proposing condos right near Sunnyside, so we need more teachers,” Adan said. “Every time you block funding for education you are taking away from our kids.”

Board of Apportionment and Taxation member Jarrett Frazier, who, along with fellow board member Wayne Bragg, voted against Lauretti’s budget, said the Board of Education’s budget request should be honored.

“For me, the difference from the BOE budget filled with critical needs they presented and the mayor’s proposed budget that doesn’t fully fund education was why I voted no,” Frazier said. “Our children should be a priority.”

Yolish told the aldermen her board has been “alerted as to the surmounting costs of our special education this year - something we cannot totally plan for as new students move into our city with high-cost special ed needs that are mandated by the state.”

Yolish added the school board had “no crystal ball to prepare for these costs and would never come to you saying we anticipate $2 million extra in future special education services.”

She asked the aldermen to “please consider providing an educational budget that supports and assists these needs. Needs are those things that are necessary and most important and that is exactly what our educational budget reflects.”

Children today are entering the school system at age 3 and are “so much more unique than the olden days of my time of teaching,” she said.

“They have diagnosis’ that weren’t heard of years ago,” she said, “And these are so much more complex in providing for their educational needs. It is important to note that all children have been impacted by the pandemic and many others have issues with anxiety and stress."

Both Yolish and Saranich praised Lauretti for the proposed education allocation, but said they remained concerned about the impact of special education costs.

“These costs have impacted our ability to properly fund our school system,” Saranich said. “I’m hoping through continued collaboration and communication that we can develop a manner in which the city can provide funding for these unexpected costs.”

Saranich said mounting special education costs are hitting municipalities and school boards throughout the state — and many are developing “creative ways” to work together to defer the costs.

“I am hopeful that we continue to meet and develop a system together to make sure the school system is properly funded as more and more students move into our city,” Saranich added.