Shelton finance board hits impasse on school budget amount

A stalemate between Republicans and Democrats on the Board of Apportionment and Taxation (A&T) caused the board to not vote on the education side of the proposed 2015-16 budget.

The three Republican members and the three Democratic members disagreed on how much to give the school system, but they did vote on how much to provide the city side — or non-education part — of the budget.

They added a small amount — about $200,000 — to the municipal side of Mayor Mark Lauretti’s proposal in a series of about a dozen unanimous votes.

Difference: $1.5M more vs. $3.25M more

Republican members wanted to give the Board of Education (BOE) $1.5 million more than in the current budget, which is the amount recommended by Lauretti, a Republican.

But Democratic members wanted to give the BOE a $3.25-million increase, an amount that school officials have said is needed to keep all current services and personnel, or what is called the “rollover” budget.

“We’re agreeing to disagree,” said Charlotte Madar, A&T chairman and a Republican. The Board of A&T serves as Shelton's finance board.

The BOE has requested an increase of $4.2 million, or 5%, but School Supt. Freeman Burr said during an A&T workshop he realized some city officials might consider that amount to be too high.

'You can't take it away'

Madar was concerned that any new money added to the BOE budget for 2015-16 would have to automatically be matched in future years due to state education laws. “Once you give it to them, you can’t take it away,” Madar said.

She also said the school district’s enrollment has been declining for years, and this should mean “less expenses.”

Madar said Lauretti is meeting with school officials — including Burr — and more funds likely will be provided on the city side for school-related purposes if necessary, especially to avoid any possible layoffs. “They’ll get everything they need,” she said.

“We’re torn,” said Republican A&T member Joseph J. Palmucci. “On one side we hear [the BOE] pleas, but we don’t know where we’ll get the money.”

‘At a minimum’

Louis Dagostine III, a Democrat on A&T, said a $3.25-million increase for the BOE was needed “at a minimum.” Without it, he said, layoffs and program cutbacks in the school system were possible.

Dagostine said the situation was “disheartening.” Another Democratic A&T member, Joseph Knapik, termed it “unfortunate.”

Knapik said A&T “should at least fund the BOE rollover costs … so they can pay their bills.”

Republican John Belden said he also was concerned about the possibility of teacher and tutor layoffs or the return of pay-to-participate fees for sports and extracurricular activities.

Belden indicated he was in favor of finding an amount “somewhere in the middle.”

There was a brief discussion of what happened during the budget process in 2009, when the school system was forced to cut staff due to its allotment that year.

Mayor Lauretti’s view

Lauretti, who was not at the meeting where A&T voted on the budget, has questioned if the BOE needs all the money it has requested.

“They say the same thing every year,” Lauretti said. “It’s ridiculous. This is not about the kids. Look at how much people [BOE staff] make, how many people they have, and what they retire with. It’s not fair what goes on.”

He said if the Board of Aldermen provides too much to the BOE, he could reject the budget. “If I have to veto it, I’ll veto it,” he said.

Lauretti has proposed a $120.69-million budget with no tax increase. In his plan, overall spending would go up by 1.7% and BOE spending by 2.2%.

By charter, the mayor is an ex-officio member of A&T and may break any ties.

Aldermen next in budget process

Madar formally presented the A&T budget to the Board of Aldermen on April 23. The aldermen then will vote to finalize the budget, subject to possible vetoes by Lauretti, and set the mill rate.

Madar said A&T members she would explain to the aldermen “why we did what we did,” going over the changes made and the education budget stalemate.

Her presentation would include some recommendations, based on feedback from A&T members, she said.

This will include that all department heads attend an A&T workshop, departments explain in writing any unspent money in their budgets, having a full-time computer consultant on the city side, improving the emergency communications system in White Hills, and upgrading playgrounds.

Madar said she would make “a strong request that department heads show up” at the A&T meeting in which their department will be discussed. “We should be able to question them,” she said. “It should come from a higher-up. One night a year, give us 10 minutes.”

D’Agostine agreed this was necessary. “Out of respect for us, out of respect for taxpayers, they should show up or at least answer questions. … What we shouldn’t be doing is chasing people," he said.