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Smaller Increase, Different Education

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

 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 .

KCMomCT March 07, 2011 at 05:48 PM
Even a 2% increase is very nice when I don't know anyone that will have a 2% increase to their personal budgets. As a matter of fact most families in town are dealing with cutting their personal budgets in half and living on next to nothing while we wait for the economy to improve and more jobs to come to our community. I have two young children in school and I do not feel that because my personal budget has been cut and they have less at home that they are suffering, why should an increase of 2% to their funds have such a drastic impact to result in the scare tactics the BOE and the PTA is sending out in emails to me on a weekly basis. And everything the BOE has said will need to be cut from the budget makes no sense. Common sense says that if you need to cut something you go to the biggest line items not the small items like teachers or aids. Why are we not looking at the 10 highest paid individuals on the BOE salary and asking them to take a 10% cut in order to keep the level of education. They know that many of us in town have lost so much more in salary and that some teacher will lose an entire income yet that would be "unfair"? Their are people in both the BOE and the town with very inflated salary's that need to be addressed before we cut supplies to the elementary school. I don't think that any department at all should see an increase in their budgets when so many residents are unemployed.
Patty Sheehan March 07, 2011 at 07:27 PM
I think the BOE is informing citizens of what the impact of the proposed budget will be on the education system in town. We cannot expect an exemplary school system without paying the price for it. Now, maybe folks will decide that "good enough" is good enough. If so, I think it is up to the BOE to let people knwo what "good enough" will be.
CTPati March 08, 2011 at 12:19 AM
I agree with Karen that "Even a 2% increase is very nice when I don't know anyone that will have a 2% increase to their personal budgets. As a matter of fact most families in town are dealing with cutting their personal budgets in half and living on next to nothing while we wait for the economy to improve and more jobs to come to our community. I have two young children in school and I do not feel that because my personal budget has been cut and they have less at home that they are suffering." She continued: "why should an increase of 2% to their funds have such a drastic impact to result in the scare tactics the BOE and the PTA is sending out in emails to me on a weekly basis"? My husband and I attended the public hearing the BOF held on Saturday at Madison M.S., and I am glad to hear confirmed by a Trumbull PARENT, what those crying and pleading for an over 5 % INCREASE *denied*: That there ARE, indeed, "scare tactics the BOE and the PTA is sending out in emails...on a weekly basis"!!
CTPati March 08, 2011 at 12:45 AM
My impression of *many* of the suggested "cuts" to the education budget mentioned in this article, is that the superintendent (and others) are picking some of the items (deliberately) that will draw the most complaints from parents, i.e. the notion of dropping sports/arts programs. After spending a couple of hours looking at the high school courses taught in Trumbull: http://www.trumbullps.org/ths/pdf/prg_of_studies.pdf It seems to me that there are courses that likely have very few students enrolling/benefiting, or which simply do not *substantially* contribute to the "quality" education our primarily college bound students require. I submit the following, as just a few examples: "Bake shop," Basic ceramics (aren't those taught in middle school?), "Escape Fiction," "Individual Lifetime sports," SIX Latin courses, French V and Spanish V (short stores, films, novels/plays). If the marginal classes of less value or small enrollments are eliminated, teachers can be utilized to maximum efficiency, probably requiring fewer of them.
CTPati March 10, 2011 at 07:38 AM
To all those who believe that the over 5 % INCREASE to the school budget is essential for a quality education in Trumbull: Why do you believe that there is such a direct correlation between $$$ spent and the "quality"? 1. If your family *income decreases*, so that you have less money to spend on your children, does that mean you are *no longer as good of parents*? 2. Is a teacher who has 15-20 years of teaching under her belt, making perhaps almost twice the salary of a teacher 2 or 3 yrs. out of college, necessarily a BETTER, more effective teacher than the young one? "No other success can compensate for failure in the home." David O. McKay

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