Trumbull schools face ‘dire’ budget situation

TRUMBULL — School officials are breathing easier after a week of crunching budget numbers and meeting with numerous town and state officials, according to Interim Superintendent Ralph Iassogna.

“We’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel,” Iassogna said Wednesday.

At the Jan. 14 Board of Education meeting, Iassogna detailed a series of belt-tightening measures he had implemented in his first five days since replacing retiring Supt. Gary Cialfi. Iassogna had told the board the schools were running a deficit projected at up to $2 million and that he had implemented a spending freeze and a hold on overtime and substitute teacher costs.

“That’s how dire the situation is,” Iassogna told the board. He said he had not been able to pin down exactly how large the deficit is, but it likely would be at least $1.2 million.

“I will candidly tell you that, after five days in the position, we are in a serious situation and have several challenges ahead. There’s no question about that,” he said.

A few days later, Iassogna revised his estimate.

“It’s not going to be $2 million, more like $1.3 or $1.5 million on the high side,” he said.

Regardless of what the final deficit is, Iassogna described it as “an extremely large number,” especially coming as late in the year as it is. The district has enacted a retirement incentive program that resulted in some cost savings, he said.

“That has helped, there’s no question about it,” he said.

But even with the belt-tightening, the district will need help, he said.

“There is absolutely no way we can eliminate the total deficit,” he said. “Most likely, we will ultimately have to move for a supplemental appropriation.”

Toward that end, he and other school administration officials had met with First Selectman Vicki Tesoro this week. The meeting went well, he said.

“We had a very good conversation. She was very supportive,” he said.

Former Business Manager Sean O’Keefe, who left the position last month to take a job with the Greenwich school system, said the deficit was not a surprise. Last year the schools requested a 4.3 percent budget hike to $107.9 million. The final town budget allotted the system a 2.49 percent increase.

“As soon as we closed (at 2.49 percent) I knew we were going to be in trouble,” he said. “That was well communicated.”

The deficit is due to a number of issues, including an increase in demand for health coverage and higher-than-projected energy costs.

“Overall, the year-to-year increase in health is $1.6 million,” he said. “That’s a big hurdle.”

The biggest factor, though, is special education and transportation for students in special education programs, he said.

“In October 2019, we identified $1.4 million in special education and transportation costs,” O’Keefe said. “That number has only grown.”

O’Keefe agreed with Iassogna’s assessment of the school system’s cost-cutting efforts.

“They have certainly put a dent in the deficit,” he said.

Tesoro took issue with O’Keefe’s comments to the board, saying it was “totally out of line” for a former employee to seemingly blame the administration’s budget allocation for the schools’ situation.

“The town administration has no say in how the board spends its allocation,” she said.

She said the school system has received a larger percentage increase the past two years than it had since at least 2015, and said the board’s current financial situation was a result of numerous factors, some of which had been years in the making.

Iassogna, in his own comments to the board, agreed.

“This deficit is ours, it’s the Board of Ed’s. There are reasons for it, legitimate reasons, but it’s on our side,” he said. “Even with 3.51 (percent increase) we would be in deficit.”

School board member Scot Kerr said the board was holding out hope for an excessive cost reimbursement from the state. The district has applied for the reimbursement, which is available to school systems that incur special education costs 4.5 times higher than the district’s average cost per pupil, O’Keefe said.

Kerr’s hope may become reality, according to preliminary conversations between Iassogna and state education officials.

“What we’re looking at is about $1 million,” Iassogna said. “That’s what’s there in the budget.”

Once the state approves Trumbull’s reimbursement, the schools still will be faced with requesting a supplemental budget appropriation, likely between $200,000 and $500,000.