Trumbull school board seeks $4.7 million budget hike

TRUMBULL — The financial review that showed dozens of financial irregularities in the Trumbull school system continues to dominate the Board of Education’s budget discussions, even as the board voted unanimously to submit a $113.7 million funding request to First Selectman Vicki Tesoro.

Superintendent Martin Semmel, who was not associated with the Trumbull schools during the time period that the review covered, pointed out to the board at its Feb. 9 meeting that the deficit spending seemed to begin at about the same time that the schools received unusually small budget allocations. The deficits eventually led the schools into what interim Superintendent Ralph Iassogna called a dire budget situation in January 2020.

“The previous final approved budgets are typically in the high twos (percent increase) and some mid twos,” he said while showing the board a chart of the school system’s annual budget increases from 2013-14 to 2020-21. “But in 2016-17 and 2017-18, it only increased 1.77 and 1.42 (percent).”

Semmel referred to the financial report, which covered the three year period ending June 30, 2020 and hypothesized a possible connection.

“I don’t know all the specifics, and they were challenging years, but when those budgets came in that low, it’s possible that’s where you started to see your issues,” he said. “When you only have 1.77 or 1.42, you end up trying to catch up. I thought it was interesting those two years came in that low, and around those times you started to see deficit spending.”

Next year’s budget proposal, while a $4.72 million or a 4.33 percent increase from the current $109 million school budget, is deceptively modest, Semmel said.

“Most of our request is in required areas, which we don’t have much control over,” he said. “Although 4.33 percent may seem high, when you back out the money that we talked about, I think you’ll see this request is quite modest.”

For example, Semmel said, 82 percent of the budget is benefits and salaries, and another 10 percent is purchased services. That includes things like transportation which, along with employee benefits, accounts for more than half of the projected budget increase.

Benefits are projected to rise about 8 percent, or $1.9 million next year, Semmel said. Transportation costs are pegged at $973,000 more than the current year.

“The hard thing about insurance is that you don’t get a final quote until much later in the process,” he said. Initial projections had shown the potential for an increase of 6 percent up to 11 percent, but Semmel said more recent estimates have trended lower.

“Increasing the budget later on is never good, but when you can find savings that’s a positive so we will continue to play it safe,” he said.

The transportation cost increase is driven by a funding shortage from last year. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the bus company issued a $917,000 credit for the remote learning days where the buses were not used. That money was applied to help close the gap in last year’s budget, and now must be made up, he said.

“It’s not because the bus company has gone crazy, that’s not it,” he said. “It’s because of this — some people call it a funding cliff.”

The new budget proposal also funds the creation of some new staff positions, including a human resouces director, a data analyst, a second grade teacher at Frenchtown Elementary School, a speech and language pathologist, a school psychologist and math and literacy interventionists.

On the other side of the ledger, the budget eliminates several teaching positions due to declining enrollment, including one teacher at Booth Hill, two at Daniels Farm, one at Jane Ryan, one at Middlebrook and one at Trumbull High. The result is a net increase of 5.25 full-time-equivalent positions.

Semmel also addressed the special revenue and lunch accounts, which have come under scrutiny since the financial report was made public. The budget proposal includes $430,000 to balance deficits in the strings/band program, the lunch program and tuition for Trumbull students attending regional magnet schools.

“Having deficits built into your account is not a good budgeting practice, it’s part of why we got into the situation that we got into,” he said. “So we need to rectify that.”

Increasing the fees to participate in those programs was tempting, but would also have a domino effect, he said.

“To cover the deficiencies in the strings/band program, instead of the current $125, parents would have to pay $475,” he said. “I believe when you put a $475 bill in front of band parents, you’ll see a decrease in kids who participate, which then could mean reducing a staff person. So it’s more complicated than saying, ‘We’ll increase fees and make more money.’”

Semmel concluded his presentation by showing Trumbull’s average per-pupil cost of $17,078 ranks 17th out of 21 districts in Trumbull’s Demographic Resource Group. The state uses DRGs to compare communities to others with similar economic resources. Other DRG B communities include Greenwich, Madison, Newtown, Monroe and Brookfield. In the DRG, Greenwich spends the most per-pupil, $23,220. South Windsor spends the least, $16,408.

In Fairfield County, Trumbull ranks 16th out of 19 in per-pupil spending, ahead of Stratford ($16,886), Bridgeport ($15,239) and Shelton ($15,112). Redding, at $24,335 per pupil, tops the list.

“I think it’s important to point out, from an efficiency standpoint, that Trumbull is not overspending, but is being efficient with their money,” he said.

The board accepted Semmel’s report with minimal comments and made no adjustments to his proposal. Several members took the opportunity to praise the current administration, which has only been on the job since September.

“We’re on our way to doing what we should be doing,” said board member Michael Ward.