‘Salaries and benefits’ may be at risk in Shelton school budget

The Board of Education (BOE) will have to find savings through “salaries and benefits” if the city doesn’t provide enough money to meet its rollover costs in the next fiscal year.

During a budget workshop with city officials, School Supt. Freeman Burr said that 80% of the school system’s budget involves labor-related costs, so that is where most of the spending reductions would have to come.

“It’s just simple math,” Burr said at the meeting of the Board of Apportionment and Taxation (A&T), which was also attended by aldermen.

Other options could include reducing extracurricular activities or sports, bringing back pay-to-participate fees, and eliminating some elective classes, according to BOE Chairman Mark Holden.

Burr said the only item off the table would be certain special education costs, since these involve state-mandated services. “It would be everything that doesn’t serve special education students,” he said of what might be cut.

He therefore fears an inadequate budget “will pit parents of special education students and parents of regular education students against each other,” Burr said.

'The facts are ugly'

Holden said the gap in what the BOE needs and what Mayor Mark Lauretti has proposed is substantial. “We will work with you as much as we can, but the facts are ugly,” he said.

Holden assured city officials that the BOE realizes the need to be efficient with tax dollars. “We know controlling costs is a core value for Shelton,” he said, pointing out that 90% of school districts spend more than Shelton.

Holden called that “proof positive we’re delivering great value for taxpayer dollars.”

The numbers

The BOE has requested a 5% budget increase, requiring $4.2 million in new funds, which would represent a new budget of $72.05 million.

School officials say about $2.4 million of the new money is needed to meet rollover costs, which is the amount required to continue current services based on higher costs for employee salaries and benefits, transportation, energy, and similar items.

Lauretti has proposed giving the BOE $1.5 million more — or a 2.2% increase — in his 2015-16 budget, which includes no tax increase.

School officials have said the current 2014-15 budget put some expenses on the city side of the budget that will be returned to the education side in the new budget, so the school system needs a $650,000 increase just to keep even.

They also are requesting about $950,000 for specific improvements, such as 6.5 full-time positions not involving special education.

Those improvements would also include five new special education positions, which BOE officials say would save money in the long term by allowing more services to be offered in-district rather than having to pay for expensive out-of-district placement.

Reasons for the increase

Some requested budget increases are due to new state requirements and others are needed for accreditation-related reasons, said school officials.

They said special education costs are going up because the number of special education students is increasing.

During its presentation, BOE Finance Director Dominic Barone provided charts indicating Shelton spends less per student than comparable nearby districts. Shelton spends $12,940 per pupil, which is less than in Stratford, Oxford, Trumbull, Monroe, and Milford.

The Board of A&T will vote on the new budget in about two weeks, and then it moves on to the Board of Aldermen for a public hearing and vote.

Middle ground?

Burr said he realizes a 5% budget increase for the schools may be “onerous,” but he hopes an amount higher than the mayor’s proposal can be achieved.

“Hopefully we’ll get to a better number than we’re at now, but everyone has to understand the reality,” he said.

Holden said because the budget remains in flux with “so many moving targets,” focusing on what might be cut this early in the process isn’t productive. “Let’s focus on getting to a better place,” he said.

School officials said perhaps the city can agree to take on more non-labor costs, such as propane for the school buses and certain building-related energy costs.

Holden also thanked city officials for supporting the implementation of full-day kindergarten in the current budget, calling it “a smart investment in our future” because young students are being better prepared for future learning.

Anglace wants to discuss 'ideas'

John Anglace, aldermanic president, said he wants to discuss some “outside-the-box ideas” with school officials to help their budget. “There may be some ways we can save some money,” he said.

Anglace complimented BOE officials for “putting everything on the table” with their budget presentation. He said the aldermen and school officials have worked well together in the past and that should happen again this year.

“We’re not closing the door on anything,” Anglace said.

Mayor’s reaction

Lauretti, during an interview, said BOE budget requests have been too excessive during the past two budget seasons, including the current one.

“There doesn’t seem to be any accountability. They just say, 'Give it to us because it’s for the kids,'” said Lauretti, adding that school enrollment in Shelton has been declining for years and the city pays many of the district’s technology and capital costs.

But Lauretti didn’t close the door on finding a compromise, and said providing more money than he proposed for the schools is possible, “depending on circumstances.”

“The process will go to mid-May, and there may be some changes along the way,” he said.