Letter: Annual underfunding haunting education budget

Disclaimer: The information expressed below is solely my own and not as a representative of the Board of Education.

To the Editor:

People often ask how did we get here in our education budget? A place where we have had to implement pay to participate, increase classroom sizes in certain elementary schools, and experience a shortage of basic supplies? To get an accurate picture you really need to look at education costs in Shelton and the education budget over at least the last 10 years.

At the recent A&T meeting on May 8, the mayor stated that school enrollment has declined 1,100 in the last 10 years (15:40 minute mark on the video), and therefore, one should assume education costs should be going down not up. Let’s dig deeper into this statement. The state Department of Education website, edsight.ct.gov, keeps track of data for all school districts throughout the state. I have compiled enrollment data from the site and outlined it in a chart at the bottom of this letter. The most recent data shows that our enrollment over the last 10 years, from the school year 2009-2019, has dropped 745. Then what is driving up the education cost?

Special education (SPED) costs have increased exponentially in the state. I consulted the CT Association of Boards of Education and they confirmed that special education has become a much larger percentage of Board of Education (BoE) budgets across the state. If we look at the below chart, SPED costs in Shelton have increased from $13.7 million to $17 million over the same 10-year period - despite a decrease in overall enrollment. Part of this is due to increased enrollment of students with disabilities in the district. From 2009-2019 SPED enrollment grew from 9.6 percent to 14.6 percent of total enrollment. In addition, the cost to educate SPED students has increased immensely. Services can range from a student receiving 1 hour of speech and language services per week at an annual cost of $2,000, while services for another student can cost the district $150,000 annually in outplaced tuition and transportation.

According to the Consumer Price Index, inflation has increased 19.5 percent from 2009-2020. This means $100 worth of paper purchased in 2009, would now cost $119.50. Over the same period, the BoE education budget from the city has only increased 15.5 percent (see chart). There are also several costs that will not decrease if enrollment decreases. For instance, the BoE still must provide heat, electricity, and water to all our buildings no matter how many students are in the building. And we all know that what we paid for utilities in 2020 is much higher than what we paid in 2009. Health insurance is another expense that continues to increase across the country. Healthcare costs have climbed year after year, textbooks become old and outdated, curriculum needs to be refreshed, supplies need to be replenished, and technology continues to be a more integral part of our kids’ education - something that requires updates, maintenance and repairs.

The city now runs the bus company at an annual fixed cost of $3.15 million. The mayor states that the city managing the buses with save the BoE $1 million annually. But if you look closer, the contract with the city excludes bus aids and propane fuel, something that was included in the cost of our prior bus contracts. The BoE is now paying for these expenses on top of the $3.15 million it pays the city. The actual savings is closer to $200,000, which is well under 1 percent of the total BoE budget

Staff salaries are another area that continues to increase. The majority of employees belong to unions and are bound by three-year contracts. Unions are not a new concept in education and exist nationwide. The average union contract in CT calls for about a 2.5 to 3 percent annual raise. A common question I hear is: why do educators get a raise when I got 0 percent last year at my job? The simple answer is, that is how the unions work. When new contacts are negotiated, increases are typically based on the average union increases across the state. When unions and BOEs cannot come to an agreement, the matter goes to arbitration and BoEs do not fare well in arbitration against the unions. Not only can arbitrations be costly with attorney fees, the BoEs have historically lost in arbitration and often end up paying the union a higher rate than originally intended. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the BoE to negotiate fair wage increases.

More Information

At the May 8 A&T meeting, the mayor and one of the republican members of A&T stated that the BoE equates a 0 percent increase to a budget cut, which ‘just equates to bad math’ (54:15 minute mark). If the BoE is contractually obligated to wage increases every year and are given a 0% increase, how will they be able to meet these obligations? One can conclude that giving 0 percent will force the BoE to make cuts. Not only because of the union contracts, but because of the rise in SPED costs, health insurance costs, and utility costs, etc. At the beginning of the BoE budget season in January, Rick Belden - finance director for the BoE, put together a proposal that would allow the BoE to meet its contractual obligations and the annual cost increases mentioned previously. That budget required a minimum of 2.99 percent increase. However, the 2.99 percent budget increase would not be enough to eliminate pay to participate, reduce classroom size, or provide updated educational supplies. Nor would it have addressed the need for every student to have a chromebook outside of grades 5-8, which would have been beneficial in our distance learning situation and perhaps saved future costs on textbooks. A 2.99 percent increase would not have added any new school psychologists/counselors which many parents requested. It would not have resolved the state compliance issue in the pre-K program. The 2.99 percent was the status quo and now 0 percent is absolutely a cut. Since that original proposal in January, health insurance costs have increased exponentially and will require even more than 2.99 percent to maintain the current level of services.

So that is how we got here today. The BoE has had to make cuts over the past 10 years due to everything outlined previously. This year, the BoE may be forced to take drastic measures to find what amounts $3 million in cuts because it is simply impossible to meet the status quo with a 0 percent increase.

And one final word. There has been a lot of narrative in the community that the staff must take a pay freeze, “it is the right thing to do, after all my company didn’t give me a raise last year.” Mandy Kilmartin put it best in the BoE special meeting on May 21 when she said: it is not up to our staff to fund our children’s education. It is the city’s responsibility to do so. And if the city has not taken the time to understand how BoE finances work over the last 10+ years, they only have themselves to blame. I spoke to a long time staff member this week who confided in me that she would gladly take a pay freeze if she knew for certain when the city recovers from its own financial crisis, they would put more money towards the kids for education. Unfortunately, the city has a proven track record of failing to provide for our schools. She, as well as our other staff members, cannot trust that the city will invest in education in the future. I have asked a few long-time staff members why they stay in Shelton after everything they have seen with education funding in the city. They all stated that they genuinely love Shelton, its students, and their families. One told me if you cut her, “she would bleed orange and black.” Our teachers have had to deal with larger classroom sizes, a lack of adequate teaching materials, constant criticism, and countless other things they could probably write a novel about. They are routinely forced to do more for less. And just ask them about the many overtime hours they are working now, trying to effectively implement distance learning - something that no one has a playbook for. Other districts would gladly take our Shelton staff members in a heartbeat, offering them so much more to make their job easier. Yet they stay. I urge you to support our amazing staff. Show them you believe in them and the future of education in our city.

Diana Meyer