Parents plead for school funding at Trumbull budget hearing

J.R. Bria speaks about the potential effect of a proposed dumping fee on carting companies in the proposed 2021-22 Trumbull budget.

J.R. Bria speaks about the potential effect of a proposed dumping fee on carting companies in the proposed 2021-22 Trumbull budget.

Zoom screen capture.

TRUMBULL — A dozen parents and school staffers took to Zoom Tuesday to ask the Board of Finance for more money for the school system.

The board is expected to vote on First Selectman Vicki Tesoro’s $183.8 million budget proposal for the 2021-22 fiscal year next week.

In Tesoro’s proposal, she allocated $112.3 million to the schools, a 3 percent increase from their current level, but about $450,000 less than the Board of Education requested. Tesoro said she reduced the request to reflect lower-than-anticipated health care cost projections.

For about 40 minutes, one speaker after another joined the call to speak about how the schools’ current budget situation has affected them or their children.

“Education is not a line item. Education is an ideal,” said PTA Council President Marylena Kourounis. “We are at a moment in time when we need to strengthen our education system. Therefore we urge the Board of Finance to increase the Board of Ed budget above the level recommended by the first selectman.”

Pam Flynn, a 20-year veteran teacher at Tashua Elemetary School and a mother of three students in the Trumbull schools, agreed.

“The staff was demolished by cuts this past year,” she said. “We only have two special education teachers to service our entire building.”

One specialist has 19 students on their case list; providing services to all 19 students would take more than 70 hours a week, Flynn said.

“How is that possible for one person to meet those hours? It isn’t,” she said.

The math and reading specialists also have been cut. Tashua shares a math specialist with Frenchtown School, Flynn said.

“She’s amazing, but is only in our building two days a week,” she said.

The single reading specialist is responsible for serving the entire building, Flynn said.

“This means she is only able to help the neediest of children,” Flynn said. “Anyone who may have been on the cusp and benefited from small group instruction to get them up to grade level is out of luck.”

Ann Martorana, who moved to town from Stratford and has two children in the school system, said she had a similar experience. She said her older daughter was immediately identified as potentially benefiting from the assistance of a reading specialist.

“She received a half hour of reading support every day,” Martorana said. “The service was very, very beneficial and she’s now reading at or above grade level. Early intervention is so very important.”

Several commenters pointed out that Superintendent Martin Semmel took over a school system already struggling with the effects of a budget crunch that was further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The toll the pandemic will ultimately take on students and staff will not be known for some time, said Veronical Lenzen.

“Despite all the efforts of the teachers, this is going to affect all of us,” she said. “General education, special ed, gifted, it doesn’t matter. They’re all going to be behind and they’re going to be behind by a year.”

Lenzen said the pandemic would also have an ongoing cost in addition to the missed learning opportunities.

“We’re going to need smaller class sizes, well-trained and well-paid teachers, and well-trained and well-paid related service providers,” she said. “Social and emotional learning is going to be more important than ever.”

Although most of the people who signed up to speak urged the board to increase Tesoro’s budget allocation to the schools, Cindy Penkoff praised Semmel, but slammed Tesoro’s budget proposal as dishonest.

“Backdoor taxes, robbing the general fund, shortchanging education and not one school upgrade or senior center in sight,” she said. “Trumbull deserves better than this.”

J.R. Bria, whose family runs Residential Waste Systems, also complained about a proposed tipping fee for trash haulers at the transfer station, calling it a hidden tax. Haulers paying the fee would ultimately pass the fee along to the customer in the form of increased rates, he said. That could also have the unintended consequence of increasing traffic at the transfer station if more residents decide to haul their own trash rather than pay the higher rate. Trumbull residents currently can bring their household trash to the transfer station for free.

“What’s to stop someone from making a free dump run seven times a week?” he said. “When we go, it’s one truck for 600 homes.”

The volume of trash in an RWS truck helps the transfer station operate more efficiently than having more homeowners using the station, he said.

“Haulers pick up from 85 percent of the houses in town, but only account for about 62 percent of the dumping,” he said. “Obviously when you have nothing curbing how much you can throw away, you’re going to throw away more.”

When the board deliberates its budget adjustments next week, members can increase or reduce any line item in Tesoro’s proposal. If adopted as-is, the 2021-22 budget would require a tax increase of just over 3 percent, or $317 on a house valued at $400,000.

Tesoro in her budget letter to the board pointed out that her proposal gave the school system its largest budget increase in eight years and reminded the members that the town’s current budget, adopted last year, did not raise taxes.