Schools Superintendent Iassogna makes case to Trumbull council's Finance Committee

TRUMBULL — For all of the human suffering and economic chaos the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, it did help the Trumbull schools close a budget gap in the 2019-20 school budget.

Interim School Superintendent Ralph Iassogna told the Town Council Finance Committee May 6 that the school district will not be seeking supplemental funds to avoid ending the year in a deficit that at one point was estimated at nearly $2 million but was closer to about $400,000 in early March after some cost-savings measures were put in place.

The council has hired accounting firm PKF O’Connor Davies to audit the school budget.

Interim Business Administrator Allan Cameron said the savings came primarily from the reduced need for school supplies and transportation costs.

“Until the governor decided that we were not going back to school (this year), we didn’t have good leverage,” he said. He added that he expected to see “significant savings” now that school buses won’t be transporting students again this year.

But Assistant Superintendent Jonathan Budd cautioned that next year, which could potentially start late or with social distancing protocols still in place, was a major unknown.

“The budget impact could go both ways,” he said.

If schools had to limit the number of students in the building, that could mean multiple sessions each day, or different groups of students coming to school on different days, he said.

“It’s one of those big unknowns,” he said. Split sessions could also have a significant impact on staff, transportation and even custodial costs if schools are cleaned and sanitized between sessions, he said.

Iassogna said returning students to school could be more of a challenge than distance learning.

“Our classrooms hold 25, 26 students,” he said. “There’s no way to keep kids six feet apart. What would we do about the cafeteria? At Trumbull High, there are 400 students in each lunch shift, and we have five shifts.”

But despite the cost savings the schools have seen, next year’s budget projections remain gloomy. The Board of Finance voted last month to allocate $108.8 million to the school system for the 2020-21 fiscal year. That is a 2.53 percent increase over the current year but $500,000 less than First Selectman Vicki Tesoro had recommended and $2.2 million less than the board had requested in January.

The council could, in its budget review, reduce the school allocation further, leave it as-is or add money back up to Tesoro’s recommended amount by a 2/3 vote. Iassogna compiled a cut list for the Board of Education that included 29 teachers, freshman sports and more, although he held out hope that some staff and programs could be reinstated if the schools receive more money or find other areas to save.

One potential avenue for savings — staff furlough days — has been discussed but not approved. Iassogna told the committee that the Trumbull Administrators Association seemed receptive to the idea of a furlough day. The Trumbull Education Association, which represents the town’s roughly 600 teachers, preferred to wait until there was more certainty in the budget, he said.

“The board doesn’t know how much it will end up with,” Iassogna said. The schools still don’t know if there will be summer school sessions, and it remains to be seen how much money the schools recoup from transportation costs. In fact, Iassogna said, the school system may end up in court with Durham School Service, which contracts to run the school buses.

“Because of the uncertainty, the union said ‘not at this time,’” Iassogna said.

Lori Rosasco-Schwartz, R-3rd, wanted to know how class sizes would be affected by the anticipated layoffs. The question was difficult to answer because teaching assignments would be shuffled based on seniority, Iassogna said. Currently, class sizes at the elementary schools and Trumbull High are normal-to-low, but middle school classes are “very, very high,” he said.

Kevin Shively, D-2nd, pointed out that even if the Town Council restored every penny of the $500,000 the Board of Finance took out of the school budget, “there would still be some pain involved.”

But if the council restored some funds, and if the staff agreed to a furlough day, Shively asked how close the schools would be to maintaining their current levels.

Iassogna said every dollar would help. Although the school board has the final say on budget allocations, he said he would “strongly advocate” for staff and programs to be restored. The schools also are waiting for word on possible state and federal funds that could become available. Better funding could mean that the 29 teachers slated to lose their jobs might be reduced.

“We’re hoping for more money,” he said. “Any money that comes into this pot, the board could consider hiring them (teachers) back.”