Shelton school board passes budget with 7 percent hike

Parents and school staff filled the main meeting room at the Board of Education's offices Feb. 9, 2023, for the board's final budget workshop.

Parents and school staff filled the main meeting room at the Board of Education's offices Feb. 9, 2023, for the board's final budget workshop.

Contributed photo

SHELTON — The Board of Education will be sending Mayor Mark Lauretti a budget which includes a $5.3 million, or more than 7 percent, hike from the present year’s number. 

In front of a standing-room-only crowd of parents and school staff, the school board approved Superintendent Ken Saranich’s proposed $80.4 million budget in a 7-2 vote. Republicans Jim Feehan and Jim Orazietti opposed. 

“I am appreciative of the in-kind services and capital improvements the city has generously given us, but the fact remains that this recommended budget request ... is necessary and one that I am endorsing,” said Board Chair Kathy Yolish, admitting that this may be her final budget. 

“Some will say that ‘I drank the Kool Aid’ and to that I say, ‘No, I just had a cup of reality,’” Yolish added. 

The vote came one week after the board tabled a final decision, allowing for more time to study the superintendent's request. When the vote concluded, those in attendance cheered loudly in support of the approved budget, which now goes to Lauretti, who is in the process of forming the 2023-24 overall city budget. 

Lauretti, reached after the meeting, said he was not surprised by the board’s vote. 

“I think they probably know they’re not going to get that kind of money,” said Lauretti, who has not filled the school board’s entire budget requests in recent years. “The biggest factor is enrollment in flat.” 

Lauretti stated earlier this week that he would not expect the schools to get an additional $5 million. 

“Our budget should not be Republican or Democrat but a student-centered budget that is all inclusive,” Yolish said at the meeting. “As this will most likely be my final year preparing a Board of Education budget, I want to leave our school system in a better place than when (fellow board member) Kate (Kutash) and I were elected in November 2009.” 

Yolish recalled that one day after being sworn in in 2009, the board was tasked with mitigating some $2 million. 

“It was an awful task, and many layoffs took place, as well as a purchasing freeze for that entire school year,” Yolish said. 

After the meeting, parent Tom Hanas said that even during strong economic times, Lauretti continually cuts the proposed education budget down, while providing no explanation to the taxpayers. 

“This year, instead of sitting behind his office walls, I want (Lauretti) to go on record and comment as on his decisions,” Hanas said. “If he chooses to go against the BOE’s approved budget, explain to the parents and taxpayers of this city how he thinks a 29:1 student to teacher ratio creates a healthy learning environment for our children. Are we this financially poor in Shelton despite all the commercial and residential development that is crowding our city?” 

Fellow parent Martha Parkins said the new elementary teacher hires will help quell class sizes of 28 and 29 in multiple schools in the city, including her daughter's class. 

“The 7 percent increase is necessary due to underfunding in previous years,” she said. “The Board of Education’s budget proposal is necessary to give all of our students, the free and appropriate education to which they are entitled.” 

This year’s education budget includes $577,000 for hiring two elementary school teachers, three special education teachers and support staff, plus two paraprofessionals and $976,000 for the special education budget to cover anticipated overages. 

Feehan moved to eliminate the $577,000 from the proposed education budget, but it was voted down 7-2. Orazietti backed Feehan in this failed attempt to reduce the overall budget number. 

“We have heard from the administration that we are facing a financial cliff, yet this budget includes adding staff,” Feehan said. “We are sending a mixed message to taxpayers.” 

Feehan said he also wants to see reduced class sizes, but this is the wrong year to be adding funds for new hires when residents are struggling financially thanks to hyperinflation. 

“Seven percent is huge. We need to put forth the best budget we can and do what’s best for the children, but we must do this while being aware that the money is coming from the taxpayers,” Feehan added. 

Orazietti called the superintendent’s budget “premature” with so much spending remaining unknown this early in the process. 

He cited ongoing talks at both the state and local level, minimizing the board’s ability to assign funds “where dollars can do the most for students in the classroom."

“From staff, lunch programs, athletics, maintenance to class size,” Orazietti said, “the parameters are all over the place and I need to know what they are before I can make an informed decision.” 

Saranich and school Finance Director Todd Hefflefinger, at the Board of Education’s first budget workshop in January, presented what they called a “status quo” budget for 2023-24 that requires a $5 million, or 6 percent, increase to maintain.  

Among those increases are contractual increases of $1.48 million for certified staff and nearly $219,000 for non-certified staff; $1.08 million for benefits; nearly $589,000 for utilities (electricity and natural gas); and more than $399,000 for tuition costs at specialized schools.