Athletics, gifted program on the block as Iassogna pleads for funds

Interim Supt. Ralph Iassogna is advocating for an increase to the school system's recommended $109.3 million 2020-21 budget.

Interim Supt. Ralph Iassogna is advocating for an increase to the school system’s recommended $109.3 million 2020-21 budget.

Carol Kaliff / Carol Kaliff

TRUMBULL — Gifted programs, clubs and activities and the athletics budget would be among the areas the school board would have to cut should the schools have to make do with the 3 percent budget increase currently on the table.

“We are not promoting this, we’re just ... there’s no other areas,” said interim School Supt. Ralph Iassogna.

Iassogna went before the Board of Finance March 5 to make the case for a 4.56 percent funding increase, the level he recommended and the Board of Education approved last month. First Selectman Vicki Tesoro, in her budget proposal, allocated the schools $109.3 million, which is a 3 percent hike from the current year.

Backed by a room full of school parents wearing buttons with sayings like “Cuts Hurt Kids” and “Fund Our Schools,” Iassogna detailed the reasons for the school system’s financial situation.

“This scenario was unusual, very unusual, and did not follow past budget funding practices,” Iassogna told the board.

The main problems, he said, were that the school budgets for this year and next year “raised several concerns and were replete with financial issues,” he said. Among the financial concerns was the fact that some programs had been instituted, but not funded in the budget.

“We take responsibility for that,” Iassogna said. “We own it.”

Finance board members peppered Iassogna with questions. In particular, the board wanted to know how the school system had overspent its current year allocation by nearly $2 million.

Marty Isaac asked how the school system had paid kindergarten paraprofessionals despite not including it in the budget.

“It appears they took funding for the 39 paras from another account?” he asked.

Iassogna did not confirm that had taken place.

“I can’t say for sure because I wasn’t there,” he said. “But it appears that way.”

Food service, which tends to be self-sustaining, appears to have been raided for funds, Iassogna said. That department tends to run a small profit, which is saved in a separate account.

“So if a freezer goes, or a stove goes, she (School Lunch Manager Betty Sinko) would not come to the Board of Education,” Iassogna said. “She would go to her budget and take from her profits. But that’s not there now. She doesn’t have it anymore.”

The full magnitude of the situation became apparent when Iassogna took over as interim superintendent in January following the early retirement of Supt. Gary Cialfi and the departures of other administrative staffers.

Before leaving, Cialfi had proposed a budget that increased school funding 3.51 percent over the current year. But as Iassogna and Allan Cameron, the intermin business administrator, delved into the budget, it appeared the school system was running a deficit projected at between $1.2 million and $2 million.

In response, Iassogna instituted a series of budget cutting measures, including a spending freeze, retirement incentives, and a hold on overtime and substitute teachers.

But even with those reductions, the funding shortfall required an increase in the 2020-21 budget request. After initially ballooning as high as 6.29 percent, Iassogna recommended a budget request 4.56 percent above the current year. The school board adopted his recommendation without changes.

The schools still have a responsibility, by law, to provide an education to Trumbull students, including the roughly 700 students with special needs, he said.

“We must meet the needs of special education students. We have to,” Iassogna said. “No matter what pace they learn, we are responsible for them.”

In addition, for the first time in years, the projected school enrollment is increasing, he said. Next year, the school board anticipates 6,889 students will attend Trumbull schools, an increase of 46 from the current enrollment.

“We realize the magnitude of our request, and we understand Mrs. Tesoro’s position,” he said. But there is no question that a 3 percent budget increase would result in a significant, multiyear impact, he said.

“It is not enough. It’s really not enough,” he said.

Should the finance board not restore funding to the 4.56 percent level, Iassogna said the schools would have to look at cutbacks in several areas.

Isaac said he was seeking some assurance that, should the finance board agree to increase school funding, that overspending would not become the norm.

“There is a difference between business-as-usual and a one-time event,” he said. “How do I know this is a one-time event?”

Iassogna replied that the situation the schools found themselves in was unique and not going to be repeated.

“The so-called ship has been righted,” he said.