School officials: Potential budget gap puts Shelton teacher positions at risk

The school system may have to eliminate 10 teachers and eight tutors, leave other positions unfilled, and restore pay-to-participate fees for sports and extracurricular activities to make up for a potential budget shortfall.

These are just some of the cutbacks that could be implemented under a “worst-case scenario” if the Board of Education (BOE) receives only the $1.5 million budget increase recommended by Mayor Mark Lauretti, according to school officials.

School Supt. Freeman Burr said because salaries and benefits make up about 80% of the BOE budget, that’s where most of the reductions would have to be found.

“We have to go to the largest part of our budget,” Burr said at a BOE public information session on the budget Tuesday at Shelton Intermediate School.

Even more teaching positions — perhaps an additional six — could also have to be cut to raise the funds needed to pay unemployment benefits for BOE staff who lose their jobs, Burr said.

“It’s horrendous,” BOE Chairman Mark Holden said of the possibility of losing up to 16 teaching positions.

Specific cuts to be made uncertain

School officials emphasized it’s uncertain exactly what would be cut to make up for a budget gap, but that almost all special education expenses — a fast-growing part of the budget — would be exempt due to state requirements.

“We’d have to look districtwide,” said Burr, noting that clerical, custodial, paraprofessional, and other staff also could be at risk.

“How would we ever function?” asked Deborah Keller, a Shelton teacher and the local teachers’ union president, when hearing about the potential staff reductions.

“It would definitely affect how some services are delivered,” Burr said.

The public information session was attended by about 50 people, most of them BOE employees or public officials.

The numbers

The BOE has requested a $4.2-million (or 5%) budget increase for upcoming fiscal year 2015-16, but Lauretti wants to give the district a $1.5 million increase (or 2.2%).

School officials say they need at least a $3.25-million (or 3.6%) increase from the current budget to meet a maintenance or rollover budget, which is essentially the same budget as the current year with adjustments for contractual raises and certain other items, but no program improvements.

The biggest BOE expense increases are $1.46 million for employee salaries (most due to union contracts), $400,000 for employee benefits, and $306,000 for special education.

Possible program improvements would cost $950,000 and include five new special ed positions, one new teacher, a high school library media specialist, an elementary school guidance counselor, 1.5 information technology positions, and two math tutors.

Controlling special education costs

One goal is to invest in offering more special ed programs in-district to reduce the high cost of out-of-district placement.

The number of special ed students in the system has been steadily increasing, and soon could reach 700 students — or 14% of the student population.

The BOE presentation also highlighted other ways the BOE is attempting to save money, from energy-efficiency programs to using teaching interns rather than paid substitutes.

The district expects to have 60 fewer students in the next school year, which should lead to a reduction of two teaching positions.

‘A core value’ is efficiency

Holden said the BOE upholds “a core value” of Shelton by delivering the best services with as few dollars as possible.

“The reality is that we are careful,” he said, trying to rebut claims the school budget is growing too fast.
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According to the BOE presentation, Shelton spends “less per pupil than all our neighbors.”

Holden said the school budget has gone up less than the budget for the municipal side of Shelton government in recent years, and that Shelton spends less per pupil than 90% of school districts in the state.

According to the BOE presentation, Shelton spends “less per pupil than all our neighbors,” at $12,940 a student annually. In comparison, Stratford, Oxford, Trumbull, Monroe, and Milford spend from $250 to $2,400 more.

School budgets have been essentially flat during three of the past six years, according to BOE figures.

Holden: There will be an impact

Holden said while last year’s budget process generated more public interest because of the push for full-day kindergarten, this year it’s harder for people to comprehend how the new budget might directly affect them.

He said people should know they will be impacted by a large budget shortfall.

When asked about the tax impact of better funding the BOE, Holden said it might cost the average homeowner from $75 to $100 more, depending on the level of funding provided.

Effect on 'our kids and teachers’

Lou Dagostine, a parent and Democratic member of the Board of Apportionment and Taxation, said informal meetings between city and school officials on the budget should start earlier to avoid this kind of fiscal uncertainty.

“Based on these numbers, there could be a pretty serious impact on our kids and teachers,” Dagostine said.

Michele Bialek, an active Democrat, questioned how Lauretti — a Republican who is seeking re-election this fall — determined how much to reduce the BOE budget request.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s [based] on anything,” Bialek said of Lauretti’s $1.5-million increase.

The Board of Aldermen will finalize the budget in May, and the new fiscal year begins July 1.