's education system was foremost on many residents' minds Thursday night, but they disagreed on all-day kindergarten and re-hiring computer paraprofessionals.
First Selectman Tim Herbst called the public hearing in Town Hall to fulfill a promise he made during his re-election campaign.
Parent Teacher Student Association Council President Lainie McHugh opened with a breakdown the Board of Education's proposed budget of $91.9 million, representing a 5.07 percent increase.
"I really caution people to make sure you really understand what you're looking at," McHugh said.
Specifically, she said:
- 3.6 percent is for the core budget;
- 0.5 percent is for restoration of cuts made last year;
- And 1 percent represents the cost of implementing all-day kindergarten.
McHugh said it's difficult to compare Trumbull to neighboring municipalities because they are in different reference groups or have bigger budgets or lower enrollment.
The Case for Decreased Spending
Tony D'Aquila said "the cost of operating the town is much too high. Cost is becoming an overwhelming, unfair burden on seniors." He called for a third-party operational audit (rather than financial). The overall budget should be reduced with a decrease in taxes, he added.
Susan LaFrance said the Board of Education "abdicated" its responsibility by asking for more than the superintendent's proposed 4.98 percent increase. She called for an austere budget.
Carmen DeNicola said Trumbull parents should tighten their belts. He acknowledged that education is important but, "you don't need everything. you need the basics. It's good to be hungry a little bit."
Cindy Penkoff, an alternate on the Board of Finance, spoke as a parent and a resident. She urged people to look at the big picture and beyond the education budget.
Penkoff said most seniors are living paycheck to paycheck, while the town needs to spend money on high-cost items such as a new computer system for the Police Department by 2014 and elementary school renovations.
Everyone needs to be considered "whether they're 5 years old or 85 years old," she said.
Preserving the Ed Budget and All Day Kindergarten
Herbst said he favors all-day kindergarten, the cost of which was included in the school board's proposed budget.
Veronica Lenzen said of all-day kindergarten, "Now is the time to make this investment." But, she added, the school board said the program would be on the top of the cut list.
Many speakers said all-day kindergarten is needed to give students the proper amount of instruction time. They said half-day gives students about 90 minutes in total.
Jill Atherton said her son is in the program and will "lose everything that he's gained."
He didn't speak before entering the program, which serves nursery school age and younger to kindergarteners. "He's speaking. He can count to 50. He knows his colors and numbers," she said.
Eric Kudey said the benefits of all-day kindergarten won't be quantifiable for several years but that it will pay off in the end.
"We're behind the times," said parent Tracey Cleri, referring to all-day kindergarten.
One opponent called it "subsidized daycare."
Meanwhile, parents with older students also argued for the school budget.
Larry Stowe, a former computer paraprofessional, said he hears that teachers are reluctant to send students to computer labs because they don't know how to troubleshoot the computers. Computer paraprofessionals were eliminated at the elementary level.
Other parents said schools are supposed to prepare students for college and a lack of technological skills could hurt their chances in the long run.
Also, teachers removed at the high school level resulted in fewer classes that could have improved students' chances to get into good colleges, parents said.
Striking a Balance
Both Herbst and Penkoff said they were alarmed at the number of foreclosures in the past several weeks, as many as 10. There have been about 90 in the past year, the officials estimated.
Penkoff said during her run for the Board Education last year she spoke to senior citizens who were afraid of losing their homes because of increased taxes. About 52 percent of the town's population are seniors, she said.
Herbst released some preliminary figures that will be included in the budget, such as $2 million in debt service from the Trumbull High School renovation and sewer work.
"If our pension fund does not improve, then our bond rating could be compromised," he added.
Complicating the process is a revaluation that brought down commercial values by 16 percent and residential values by 21 percent on average. But the commercial side could take on more of the tax burden, Herbst said.
"It's a very difficult balancing act. I think we can all agree these are challenging times," the first selectman said.
The Next Steps
Herbst is scheduled to present a budget to the Board Finance Feb. 9, and details will be available on the town website Feb. 10.
Another public hearing will be held in Town Hall on Feb. 15, and another at Trumbull High School Feb. 16. Both start at 7 p.m.
Departmental budget reviews will take place Feb. 21 and Feb. 23 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Additional hearings will take place Feb. 25 at and Feb. 27 if necessary. A Board of Finance budget vote is scheduled for March 13 at 6 p.m. in Town Hall. If the panel deadlocks, then the Town Council acts as the Board of Finance and holds its own discussions and votes at a later date.