‘We can’t afford to keep going like this’ outgoing Trumbull school finance director warns
TRUMBULL — Just nine months after he was the handpicked financial choice to lead the school system through a potentially catastrophic budget shortfall, Allan Cameron said goodbye to the Trumbull Board of Education.
Though the immediate crisis was averted through a combination of management practices, cost-cutting, outside assistance and a once-in-a-lifetime three-month school shutdown, there is still much hard work to be done, he said.
“This is where the real adventure starts,” Cameron told the board during his final financial briefing Tuesday. “So the question becomes are we going to continue to nibble at the edges or is it time to take a bold leadership step, and look at what you want the Trumbull public schools to look like.”
In January, days into former interim School Superintendent Ralph Iassogna’s tenure, Cameron had delivered the news that the schools were facing a budget shortfall of as much as $1.2 million for the 2019-20 fiscal year.
The schools enacted austerity measures, but even so, Cameron said, the school system still was on track for a $900,000 deficit.
But relief arrived in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, which Cameron described as a financial blessing. For all the hardship it caused, the closing of school buildings saved money on substitute teachers, transportation, athletics, food service, supplies and more.
The savings got the schools close enough to breaking even that the Town Council was able to allocate anticipated energy cost savings and $224,000 from the General Fund to close the gap.
The current 2020-21 budget contains no deficit, but last year’s crisis, currently under investigation by an independent auditor, should be a wakeup call, Cameron said.
Next year’s budget is already looking challenging. The schools used a $917,000 COVID-related transportation credit in this year’s budget. That won’t be there next year. With teachers starting a new contract, and anticipated increases to health insurance, the schools will start the 2021-22 budget year $4.7 million short, he said.
“That’s a 4.34 percent increase,” he said. “If the town is unable to provide that amount, then once again we’re right back where we were this year.”
Over the past few years, Cameron said, the town has sent the board a clear message: We can’t afford to keep going like this.
With new Supt. Martin Semmel’s track record of delivering high academic achievement with moderate funding levels, the time may be right to double down on supporting the schools, he said. He dedicated the final six minutes of his report to delivering a kind of open letter to the board, town officials, and the people watching on Zoom.
“I am challenging you — be those great leaders again, and really commit to providing what the schools need,” he said. “You guys are great people, and you care about the kids. Work together.”
Over the years, the costs of the school system’s contractual obligations have grown faster than taxpayers’ ability, or at least their willingness, to pay, he said. Traditionally the board has sought to find spending reductions in areas outside the classroom. But this has resulted in overwhelming workloads on administrators who are forced to juggle combined job descriptions, and put teachers in the position of covering roles formerly held by assistants and specialists, he said.
“For the show to go on, the actors need to be supported by a stage crew, the orchestra and the conductor,” he said. “If all we have are actors, the show won’t be successful.”
The solution is simple, if not easy, he said. The town and the board need to have a difficult but positive conversation.
“Get together, develop a vision, agree that this is what it’s going to require, fund it and make it so,” he said.
Cameron’s comments received a positive response from the board, with members thanking him for his dedication and “heartfelt” plea.
“If we were all millionaires, we would fund the schools ourselves, because everyone’s heart is in the right place,” said Chairman Lucinda Timpanelli. “I just hope that (the people) out there heard you.”