Shelton school officials worry about budget outcome

Shelton education officials aren’t getting into specifics yet, but they are worried about the impact of Mayor Mark Lauretti’s proposed 2015-16 budget on the school system.

“Obviously, I’m very concerned,” said School Supt. Freeman Burr.

Burr plans to meet with Lauretti to go over in detail the $72.05-million budget requested by the Board of Education (BOE). The BOE has asked for an increase of $4.2 million, or almost 5%, while Lauretti wants to give it an increase of $1.5 million, or 2.2%.

Burr said he looks forward to explaining why the new money is needed, “and hopefully we’ll get to a better place.”

Mark Holden, BOE chairman, also is concerned. “I don’t know exactly what the fallout could be,” he said when asked about the potential impact of having the BOE-requested increase cut by more than half.

Holden said he hopes the BOE budget will be go back up during the ongoing budget process. “We’re certainly going to give it a try,” he said.

Meeting the rollover budget

Holden said the mayor’s plan falls short of even meeting the school district’s rollover budget, or what it would cost to keep the same level of services due to higher costs for employee salaries, benefits, transportation, and other requirements.

“The mayor’s budget proposal is $1 million less than we need to maintain our current programs,” Holden said. “It fails to cover our contractual obligations for staff, buses and utilities.”

Planned improvements

The BOE also is seeking additional funds for program improvements in special education, math tutors and computer services, and for adding one library media specialist and one school counselor.

Holden said some increases involve state mandates, such as special education services and new teacher evaluations, and the district is finding creative ways to implement them at an extremely low cost.

Lauretti has proposed an overall city budget of $120.69 million, which would represent an increase of 1.7% from the current budget. The mayor’s budget would keep the tax rate unchanged.

The next fiscal year will begin on July 1. The budget should be approved, and the new tax rate set, in May after action by the Board of Apportionment and Taxation and then the Board of Aldermen.

'Santa Claus' comment reaction

Holden offered a comment as a direct response to Lauretti’s remark comparing the BOE with Santa Claus during his budget presentation on March 16.

“If the BOE wishes to continue to play Santa Claus with our money,” Lauretti had said, “then they will have to find ways to fund it within the funds allocated.”

According to Holden, “The only explanation I have for Mayor Lauretti’s assertion that the Shelton BOE thinks we’re Santa Claus is we are ranked in the top 37% of school districts in the state in student achievement and 90% of the districts spend more than we do on a per-pupil basis.

“Having a budget in the bottom 10% and outperforming most of the districts does sound like something Santa might be able to do,” Holden continued.
He said the BOE spends money carefully while getting good results.

“We don’t have magic, but we do have great employees, and our board does care about delivering the best education we can with the hard-earned tax dollars we’re entrusted with,” Holden said.

School system's enrollment numbers

Holden also countered Lauretti’s assertion that the schools need less than requested because  the system has 900 fewer students than a decade ago.

While that sounds like a good reason to cut the budget, it works out to one fewer student per classroom per year, Holden said. The only way to save money is if a full classroom of same-grade students from one school leaves the system, he said.

Burr said with the current 2014-15 budget, the city had agreed to pick up from $500,000 to $700,000 in education-related costs on the municipal side to free up funds in the school budget.

This helped the BOE implement full-day kindergarten and stop pay-to-participate fees for sports and other extracurricular activities.

But no such agreement now exists with the new budget, Burr said. So from the superintendent’s perspective, some of the $1.5-million increase for schools in Lauretti’s proposal doesn’t really represent new money.

Holden said the Shelton BOE is frugal and works to keep its budget reasonable, and that was especially true in the aftermath of the back-and-forth over starting full-day kindergarten last year.

“I know we need to keep our costs reasonable,” he said.