School board seeks 5.4% budget increase with full-day K

Board of Education Chairman Mark Holden
Board of Education Chairman Mark Holden

The Board of Education (BOE) has approved a budget with a 5.37% increase that includes money to start a full-day kindergarten program.

The $69.1-million spending plan is for fiscal year 2014-15, which begins July 1 and covers the upcoming school year.

The largest increase in the budget would be for teacher salaries, with a new union contract essentially giving them 3% salary hikes for the next three years in return for some concessions.

Other substantial budget increases are for health care insurance, transportation, technology, and teaching supplies.

Lower than original proposal

The budget amount is lower than what was originally recommended by School Supt. Freeman Burr about a month ago. At that time, the proposal was for a $70.1-million budget, representing a 6.8% increase over the current $65.6-million budget.

Some school expenses have since been moved to capital requests that would be bonded, lowering the operating budget request.

The school district could try to save additional money by offering an early retirement incentive to teachers. This could lead to longtime, higher-paid teachers being replaced by newer teachers with lower salaries.

Cost of full-day kindergarten

Part of the BOE budget request reduction is due to the expected lower cost on the operating budget side for full-day kindergarten, which originally was slated at $948,000.

That amount is now expected to be in the $360,000 to $400,000 range in operating funds, partly due to the need to hire fewer new kindergarten teachers and also by paying $200,000 in new kindergarten furniture and equipment costs through capital bonding on the city side.

“I think that makes it a more palatable number,” said BOE Chairman Mark Holden.

Holden said a lower projected budget for full-day K makes it more likely other city officials will support the idea — and therefore the requested school budget — during the budget process.

Fewer elementary classrooms needed

New elementary school projections indicate there will be a need for fewer classroom teachers in the first to fourth grades, making up for some of the new kindergarten teachers who will be needed for full-day K, school officials said.

The new calculations assume a net of only three new kindergarten teachers will have to be hired, compared to eight in earlier calculations.

“It’s a much reduced number from our original projection,” said Asst. School Supt. Lorraine Rossner.

Five of the kindergarten positions would be offset by current non-kindergarten teaching positions not needed on the elementary level in the next school year.

Unanimous vote

Burr said the budget proposal was refined downward based on earlier input by BOE members. “This is a better place in terms of what the board was looking for,” he said of the decrease.

During an earlier budget workshop, BOE members had told Burr to keep the request to 5.9% or lower.

The BOE passed the budget 7-0 at a Jan. 29 special meeting. BOE members John Francino-Quinn and Kathy Yolish were absent.

The BOE-approved budget now moves to Mayor Mark Lauretti for consideration, where it would become part of the city’s overall budget plan for 2014-15. The Board of Apportionment and Taxation as well as the Board of Aldermen will be part of that approval process.

‘Realistic’ full-day K numbers

BOE Secretary Arlene Liscinsky said school staff had done a good job making the full-day kindergarten numbers “realistic,” and she thinks the BOE’s unanimous support of the budget “shows we’re behind it.”

Referring to full-day K proponents, Liscinsky said the BOE vote “legitimizes their enthusiasm.”

Holden said full-day K supporters would be better off waiting to hear the upcoming presentation on the program by school staff and the BOE before publicly lobbying for it.

For instance, he said emphasizing that Shelton is the only town in Fairfield County without full-day kindergarten may not be the best way to build support among other city officials.

The “keeping up with the Joneses” argument doesn’t necessarily work in Shelton, Holden said.

Holden stressed that implementing full-day K is good for budgetary reasons, and should lead to less remedial help for students in the future.

Excessive school funding request?

Mayor Mark Lauretti said a 5.37% increased request for education may be excessive. “It doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards,” he said.

Lauretti noted that based on state law, he can’t tell the BOE how to spend its allocation, so it will be up to school officials to determine how to best spend the money it eventually receives when the new city budget is finalized.

He did say he thinks the BOE can better manage its funds.

Lauretti still has not committed to supporting the concept of full-day K, and said another school-related issue may be more pressing.

“The priority is security and not full-day kindergarten,” he said, referring to security improvements being made to Shelton school buildings in the post-Sandy Hook era.