14 Sep 2014
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Smaller Increase, Different Education

The School Board outlined what it would cut to reach the first selectman's proposed budget.

Smaller Increase, Different Education Smaller Increase, Different Education Smaller Increase, Different Education Smaller Increase, Different Education Smaller Increase, Different Education Smaller Increase, Different Education Smaller Increase, Different Education

 In addition to essential “classroom costs” - readin', ritin', and 'rithmetic, - should taxpayers pay for the complementary curriculum components that make the school district a “jewel?” How important are the three As - athletics, activities and the arts? Is an increasing “Pay-to-Participate” burden appropriate in a public education system?

Is instructional intervention appropriate – is it preferable to provide targeted curriculum and support staff for elementary students who carry psychological, intellectual or emotional baggage, but do not require an individual Special Education curriculum? Or should such assistance be eliminated?

Mandates increase every year. Should they be allowed to crowd out what defined primary and secondary education even 15 years ago? Or should the district continue to provide a quality education to meet the abilities, needs and interests of all Trumbull students?

Such questions were in the background as the Board of Finance quizzed the Board of Education about the series of cuts needed to reduce the request from the $89.5 million approved by the education board to the $87 million sought by First Selectman Tim Herbst. The higher figure is 5.38 percent above this year's budget, the lower, 2.375 percent.

The Opening

Board of Finance Chairman Mark Smith invited Board of Education Vice Chairwoman Deborah Herbst to open the meeting in , which lasted four hours.

She called herself “an advocate for children and a fiscal conservative” and explained her absences from the two prior education board meetings.

“The Board of Finance wanted some idea...how services would be impacted. I was not ready for all the doom and gloom. I prefer to figure out how to meet this challenge.” Herbst concluded that though “Trumbull's schools are going to have to look different...[but] the initiatives can work.”

Herbst, a retired 35-year educator and educational administrator, said she preferred cuts that do not impact students.

One way was reducing secretarial head count in the elementary schools, which she priced out at $498,000. A second was eliminating all elementary school math specialists because their workload was more to help teachers learn to use the new curriculum than to teach under-performing students, saving $165,000.

A third was outsourcing cafeteria staffing, then reducing custodial head count and consolidating Board of Education custodial and maintenance management. She also noted that costly mid-career teachers were often hired rather than lower salaried younger teachers.

She said she does not favor closing a school, but said there must be a plan for that and for reconfiguring portions of the system.

Board of Education Chair Edward Lovely said he “found it unusual that a board member brought out issues here that could have been discussed at Board of Education meetings.”

Supt. of Schools Ralph Iassogna responded that most of the vice chairwoman’s ideas had been evaluated and shown to offer too little financially or educationally to be placed on the menu.

One example was outsourcing food service. Iassogna noted that the business was bid out about seven years ago, then two years ago. Marriott, among others, said that existing efficiency was such that they could not make sufficient changes, hold current quality and make the business attractive.

Iassogna's List

Iassogna began to list the specific budget cuts to bring the appropriation down to 2.375 percent above the current year's.

He stated that cuts below four percent “start cutting away the core.”

The first cuts, $596,412, from 5.38 percent to 4.71 percent, made at the behest of Vice Chairwoman Herbst and board member Loretta Chory, nibble away at a list of small items, including  advisors, a half-time custodian, library media, classroom, athletic, office, custodial and maintenance supplies, and some repairs.

Here Iassogna called attention to the fact that the schools have fewer custodians today than seven years ago, though “we have added the equivalent of two [schools].”

Cutting to three percent - removing $1,004,812 – eliminates all freshman sports, middle school basketball, JV cheer leading, the TAG program, three to five teachers a the high school, the alternate program at THS, one intervention specialist, a secretary and another custodian. 

These cuts may be separated into two groups, the first includes the athletics and other items, as needed, to reach 3.5 percent, with the remainder taken to get to three percent. 

To cut another $417,744 — to 2.5 percent — Channel 17 would be closed down, a PPS Speech and Language teacher and two other teachers, two secretaries and another custodian will be dropped.

The final $532,500 will be realized by raising class size maximums. Kindergarten classes will have up to 22 children, rather than today's cap of 18, grade one would rise to 24 and grades two to five to 25. More than one finance board member asked why an increase of one student makes a difference.

And beginning next September, second grade class sizes will increase at , , Frenchtown and , allowing five classroom and one specials teacher to be cut.

The total budget reduction will be $2,869,620.

Iassogna told the Board of Finance that Trumbull's ratios and costs are among the best in the District Reference Group – a group of 21 schools in communities demographically similar to Trumbull – and that it runs a much leaner and efficient system than neighboring towns.

Reconfiguration

Reconfiguration was also discussed. The superintendent said that he is working with a consultant and that the preliminary assessment is that such a program works best when a district has underutilized buildings and seeks to change for academic purposes — “which we do not have.”

But when it is undertaken for economic reasons, systems rarely realize a meaningful return, he said.

Finance board alternate Perry Molinoff recalled underspending on maintenance during the 1990s and asked whether this was being repeated. Iassogna said, “yes, but not on safety.”

He said that some of the unspent monies which created the stir last year were spent to remove an underground tank at school and remove asbestos from Daniels Farm school.

Molinoff followed the “pay me now or pay me later” idea, asking about cutting math and intervention specialists. Asst. Supt. Gary Cialfi said quantifying the need for future specialists is “difficult to do," adding that “not meeting Average Yearly Progress means hiring tutors at our expense from a state approved list and 'employing' them until standards are met.”

At the end of an extended discussion about teacher salaries, Iassogna told the finance board that the pendulum was swinging back toward school boards, and that Trumbull recently concluded contracts with two unions with no year one increases.

Transparency

Mark Smith opened a conversation about transfers within the budget, wondering whether there is something opaque in the process. Business Administrator Steve Sirico assured him the system was transparent.

“Budgets are estimates prepared eight months before the first dollar is spent, so you should not be surprised that some accounts are under allocated, and others over funded," Sirico said.

Further, he told Smith, a subcommittee of the education board approves all transfers and the complete list of all transfers becomes a part of the board's subsequent agenda.

Steve Rinaldi, managing director of Everett James Consultants, the board’s insurance broker, led a discussion about the $1 million increase in health insurance. He noted that that increase has been reduced by about $200,000, freeing the amount for other uses. It was also noted that while the town budget shows a zero increase for health insurance, its average premium is some 25 percent above the school.

Rinaldi also told the finance board that pooling school and town employees would raise the cost for both.

Following a break, the session resumed. Board of Finance member Tom Tesoro opened by taking the schools administration to task for not doing as much as he believes they should publicizing their many successes. 

Tesoro asked how the first selectman's request would impact the THS accreditation process. Iassogna replied that larger class sizes, eliminating classes and replacing them with study halls, a narrower curriculum that does not meet the state's 21st century guidelines or the needs of Trumbull's diverse community will hurt the district.

Andrew Palo asked about some of the activities that are in the Pay to Participate program, with the goal of making them as close to revenue neutral as possible. One example is that participating in the high school musical will cost each of the approximately 55 students $100.

The net of the four-hour meeting was a sense that part of the program that attracts young families to Trumbull may be in jeopardy as the Board of Finance approaches its vote on March 14.

Another budget hearing is scheduled for Saturday at 10 a.m. at .

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