Revised Trumbull schools budget now poses 4.35% increase

TRUMBULL — Higher than expected health insurance costs and attempts to comply with recommendations contained in an operational review added about $400,000 to the school system’s 2021-22 budget request.

Superintendent Martin Semmel and business administrator Paul Hendrickson explained the reasons for the increase at last week’s Board of Education meeting. The board is scheduled to vote on the request, and if approved, submit it to First Selectman Vicki Tesoro Feb. 9.

“$113 million is a lot of money, and you want to make sure you spend it correctly,” Semmel said.

The additional $400,000 brings the school system’s budget request to $113.76 million, an increase of about 4.35 percent or $4.3 million more than the current budget.

According to Hendrickson, the bulk of the increase comes from the rising cost of projected health care expenses. The cost increase, which had been estimated at about 6 percent, is actually closer to 8 percent, he said. That accounts for $297,000.

The rest of the increase includes $80,000 for salary and benefits for an additional person in the school’s business office to serve as a backup in compiling the weekly payroll and some other functions. The district also added funds to pay for a facilitator for the planned social justice program ($20,000) and corrected a decimal error in Semmel’s professional services expense account, which was originally budgeted at $2,400 when it should have been $24,000.

Discussion among board members centered on the recently released operational review of the school system that included criticism of the financial practices of the previous administration. Board member Michael Ward asked whether any of the review’s recommendations had been addressed in next year’s budget.

Hendrickson confirmed the payroll backup person was a result of the review. In addition, the review listed the annual licensing fees for NOVAtime employee management software that that the schools had never used. The software cost more than $50,000 each year, and Hendrickson said he had negotiated a lower rate and had begun implementing the software.

NOVAtime includes, among other things, digital timecards and vacation and other assorted time-off tracking. The school system has been doing all of that by hand, which is a time-consuming process, Hendrickson said.

“Hopefully, this will ease the workload on people in the business office and they can concentrate on other, more important things,” he said.

Board member Marie Petitti questioned whether teachers would be required to punch a time clock, arguing that such a requirement “would be an insult.”

Fellow board member Tim Gallo, who is a teacher in another district and is familiar with the system, confirmed that teachers would not have to keep track of the time they spend lesson planning or doing other work outside of school hours.

“It’s still the same group of people clocking in, but just done in much more efficient ways,” he said. “People not currently punching a time clock are not going to start punching a time clock. This just replaces time sheets with a digital system.”

Board Chairman Lucinda Timpanelli, eyeing the annual cost, asked whether the increased efficiency was worth the price tag. Hendrickson said it was worth it.

“We pay 1,000 people biweekly, and on a weekly basis we pay another 400,” he said. “So if you have that many time sheets, the frustration and workload for things that can be accomplished more easily ... this makes it well worth it.”

Scot Kerr ended the discussion by asking for more information on the district’s paper and postage costs. Over the past three years, the district has spent an average of $291,592 on copying and paper, and another $45,000 annually on postage.

“The number just stuns me. What are we mailing?” he asked. “There should be savings when we’ve invested what we have (in technology).”

Semmel replied that he was not certain what the district had mailed last year, but had confirmed the amount.

“It’s something we can look into, we’re mailing things that should be emailed,” he said. “I don’t know enough about where all the postage goes, but it certainly is being spent.”

deng@trumbulltimes.com