School board approves budget, but council plans audit

Interim Supt. Ralph Iassogna, shown here during his tenure as acting Brookfield supt.

Interim Supt. Ralph Iassogna, shown here during his tenure as acting Brookfield supt.

Carol Kaliff / Carol Kaliff

TRUMBULL —The Trumbull Board of Education has approved a budget request for the 2020-21 fiscal year, but the fallout from the school system’s budget deficit seems certain to continue for months.

At a Feb. 20 special meeting, the school board approved a $110.97 million budget proposal for next year. That is a 4.56 percent increase from the current year’s $106.11 million allotment.

But even if First Selectman Vicki Tesoro, the Board of Finance and the Town Council leave that number intact, the result will be a school budget that does not even reach status quo levels because of a $2 million budget shortfall uncovered last month in the current 2019-20 budget.

“We know the budget is far from perfect, and it was very painful putting it together because we had to reluctantly include some items (on the cut list) because there were very few options,” said Interim School Supt. Ralph Iassogna. “The process was so complicated that the usual approaches were not viable.”

The budgeting problem was compounded because the shortfall was uncovered shortly after former Supt. Gary Cialfi took early retirement in January — after submitting a 2020-21 budget proposal but before the board began its hearings. Iassogna, who was Cialfi’s predecessor, is acting as superintendent until the board can hire a permanent replacement.

“Originally, Dr. Cialfi presented a 3.51 percent increase, but because the previous year had some inaccuracies in it we had to increase that,” Iassogna said.

The inaccuracies in the current school budget included some accounts that were unfunded for two years, he said.

At a Feb. 18 special meeting, Iassogna told the board that the current budget situation was “the most severe issue I’ve ever faced” in his career. In fact, as he and interim Business Administrator Allan Cameron delved into the numbers, he described the situation as “almost robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

To close the shortfall, Iassogna and the school administrators made a series of cuts that included three technology support positions; leaving unfilled the job of Assistant Superintendent Mike McGrath, who left to take a position with Cooperative Educational Services; phasing out a special education transit van that serves only one student, and trimming about 10 percent from the athletics coaching staff. The administration also cut $20,000 from the system’s professional development budget, reduced the tuition budget for the Fairchild Wheeler Magnet School and cut textbook procurement to a minimum.

Iassogna described the reductions as “painful and anguishing,” although it could have been much worse, he said.

“We got a reprieve just a few hours before the board meeting when we found out from the state that our health insurance rate was much lower than anticipated,” he said. “We had budgeted a 10 percent increase, and they said it was actually 6.5 percent. That allowed us an extra $500,000, and because of that, we were able to add back 25 kindergarten paraprofessionals, 4.5 reading specialist positions and 2.6 math specialists.”

That last-minute cash influx could mean the difference between painful cost reductions and a school system that is significantly diminished, Iassogna said.

“If you lost 25 kindergarten paras, that’s a significant impact,” he said.

When the board made its final vote to approve Iassogna’s revised recommended budget, applause broke out among the estimated 200 parents at the meeting. Iassogna said he found the claps surprising but gratifying. He attributed the reaction to the schools’ disclosing the full extent of the problem and addressing it head-on while attempting to minimize the effect on students.

“I was very, very appreciative that the audience felt that the facts had been given in a transparent way,” he said.

But the passage of the budget does not mean the schools’ budget problem is a thing of the past.

Tesoro, who expects to submit her municipal 2020-21 budget proposal March 2, described the school budget situation as being between a rock and a hard place. The town has no line-item control over the school budget, so Tesoro can only make a bottom line cut, which the board would then have to implement.

“The school system is a pillar of our community. I understand that, and I’m dedicated to keeping it that way,” she said. “But we can’t afford everything. I have an obligation to all the taxpayers.”

Town Council Chairman Mary Beth Thornton said the council had approved funding an independent audit of the school budget.

“I would like to get that done ASAP and get a definitive answer,” she said.

Even if the council hires an auditor that starts work immediately, though, she said it was unlikely there would be any answers on how the school budget shortfall happened before the end of the current budget year.