Trumbull parents to finance board: Restore school funds

TRUMBULL — The town’s budget may be suffering from the pandemic shutdown, but more than a score of residents said they don’t want schools funding cut.

The Board of Finance at its online budget hearing April 14 heard from 29 town residents, all of whom were clear that whatever the town’s budget situation, the schools are not the place to make reductions.

Board Chairman Lainie McHugh opened the meeting by acknowledging that the board had received emailed comments from 20 residents, all of them in support of maintaining school funding.

“Please know your emails were received and we appreciate them,” she said. In a prepared statement, McHugh explained that the town was in an unprecedented situation.

“In the best of times, it’s difficult to manage the town’s wants and needs while maintaining a palatable tax rate,” she said. “Unfortunately, the town is in a far different place than even six weeks ago when the first selectman delivered the budget to our board.”

The board is currently considering a $180.1 million budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year. If adopted without changes, it would result in a 2.59 percent tax increase, or about $189 more a year for a home with a $300,000 market value, according to First Selectman Vicki Tesoro.

Numerous residents in their emails had expressed their support for specific school budget items such as kindergarten paraprofessionals and the gifted program. McHugh pointed out that by state statute, the town only approved a lump sum for the schools. Specific items fell under the purview of the school board.

“You will need to remain involved to ensure they spend your tax dollars in a manner consistent with how you wish your schools to look, given the money they have to spend,” she said.

The schools experienced a significant budget shortfall this year — so much that the Town Council approved hiring an independent auditor to find out why. But the COVID-19 outbreak has also placed other departments in a tough spot, she said.

“We find ourselves facing potentially significant shortfalls,” she said. “We hear your concerns, and will do our best to see that we weather this storm.”

The nine residents who addressed the board via computer or phone during the tele-meeting were also unanimous in their support for the school budget, though their reasons varied.

John Mastrianni, president of the Trumbull Education Association, said the efforts teachers were making with remote learning merited a restoration of the school budget to the $110.97 million originally requested by the Board of Education. That number represents a 4.56 percent increase from the current year. Tesoro, in her proposal to the Board of Finance, recommended a $109.3 million school budget, about 3 percent higher than current year.

“It’s remarkable what teachers have accomplished, and their reward will be a budget that eliminates some of the positions that made this possible,” he said.

Resident Jennifer Burke agreed, saying any cuts to the schools would hurt the town.

“The kids will need all the support they can get when they get back” into the classrooms, she said. “All these cuts will only hurt these kids more.”

Resident Joe Martini said he was most concerned that the potential cuts to the school budget included technology reductions. But technology is what is enabling distance learning, he said.

“We can all agree, in the current time, this is a grave miscalculation,” he said. “We can’t afford to drop the ball.”

Resident Frank Squiccimarro told the board that the school system represented an educational bargain, allowing parents to live in a town with affordable taxes and providing a school system comparable to pricey private schools. With new apartments planned to open soon, the town should be focused on maintaining its schools, he said.

“De-funding really is not looking forward to challenges that are ahead,” he said. “People are already losing their jobs, even with the school-proposed budget.”

Resident Sarah Harper said reducing school funding should be a last resort, and pointed out that the ultimate financial impact of coronavirus was not known. It was also unknown what students would eventually return to, given the varied success they may have had with distance learning, she said.

“Without that information, how can you guess at a suitable budget decrease?” she asked. “The kids are going to need additional support when they go back.”

School board member Kathleen Fearon made a point of mentioning that her own daughter graduated Trumbull High School five years ago.

“You could make the argument that I would be less interested in the school budget,” she said.

But despite paying taxes on four properties in town, including her home and business, she told the finance board that she supported fully funding the proposed education budget.

“The end result is maintaining the value of our properties,” she said.

After hearing the public comments, the board adjourned without taking action. Deliberations and a possible vote are scheduled for April 20.