Council talks school funds, spending cliff at Trumbull hearing

Superintendent Martin Semmel speaks at the dedication ceremony for Mary Ellen Way, in front of Jane Ryan Elementary School, in Trumbull, Conn. Nov. 6. 2020.

Superintendent Martin Semmel speaks at the dedication ceremony for Mary Ellen Way, in front of Jane Ryan Elementary School, in Trumbull, Conn. Nov. 6. 2020.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

TRUMBULL — Members of the Town Council’s finance committee centered questions at their latest budget hearing on the use of an anticipated surplus to pay off $1.06 million in TD Bank technology loans, and whether using $850,000 in American Rescue Act funding to hire new teachers was a financially prudent move.

Superintendent Martin Semmel and business manager Paul Hendrickson, who were praised for being “very forthright and very collaborative” throughout the budget process, made a brief budget presentation to the committee recently in preparation for this week’s full council vote.

The two urged the council to approve First Selectman Vicki Tesoro’s recommended $112.3 million 2021-22 school budget allocation. That number represents a 3 percent increase from the current funding.

Several committee members sought more details on the use of federal funds hire new teachers to help bridge a learning gap from the pandemic year. “This $850,000 to hire the teachers you want, won’t that create a spending cliff?” asked Tony Scinto.

Semmel said it would not.

“Our intent is to hire for a couple years, and then we’ll have to reduce,” Semmel said. “We could have some retirements or resignations (in the next two years).”

In the event that there was unexpectedly low normal attrition, Semmel said the new hires would simply not be renewed when the funding ran out.

The answer did not satisfy Scinto.

“You’re going to hire people, then lay them off, and you’re going to have union issues, you have to go through grievances,” Scinto said. “I think that’s a little risky on my part.”

Semmel said state law allows the move.

“We don’t think it’s risky, because the folks that would be laid off would be lowest on the totem pole, and the general statutes allow us to do it,” he said. “So it’s not really a significant risk.”

Scinto said he was concerned about the budget trends over the next two years.

“This whole budget’s a spending cliff,” he said. “Not just your part, but the whole, entire budget’s a spending cliff.”

Chairman Kevin Shively disagreed.

“I’ll be looking forward to seeing where this spending cliff is, because I don’t see it currently, but we’ll see,” he said.

Lori Rosasco-Schwartz asked about the terms remaining on the TD loans. Hendrickson replied that there are three loans, with one loan coming due each year for the next three years.

Rosasco-Schwartz said using one-time surplus funds to pay off debt was “a spectacular idea.”

“Because it doesn’t create a future spending cliff, it helps with our future budgeting,” she said.

Ashley Gaudiano focused her questions on some of the new teachers that Semmel planned to hire next year. She wanted to know if Tesoro’s $112.3 million allotment would cover the salaries for the new hires.

The answer, Semmel said, was complicated.

“Yes and no,” he said. “This year is much more complicated.”

In a normal year, the 3 percent increase would have been adequate to cover the additional staffing. This year, though, has been far from normal.

“But with the surplus we have, we can make it work,” he said.

Tesoro’s budget, combined with other revenues from state and federal sources would allow proper school functioning, Semmel said.

“We would not be in big trouble (without state and federal funds), but we would not be adding back,” he said. “We would not be building our school system the way we want.”