Trumbull superintendent: Action needed to avoid students facing ‘lasting impacts’ of COVID pandemic

TRUMBULL — In presenting his proposal for the 2021-22 budget year, Superintendent Martin Semmel focused on regaining control following two fiscal years he called “two of the most challenging we have seen in recent history.”

“The 2021-2022 budget focuses on rebuilding critical staff that was lost during the 2020-2021 budget process and adding critical positions at the Central Office that will result in a more efficient system,” Semmel wrote in the executive summary to his $113.3 million budget proposal for next year.

The COVID-19 pandemic and a budget shortfall that was discovered in January combined to force drastic deficit-cutting, Semmel wrote. Now it’s time to begin the rebuild, or face the prospect of long-term diminished academic mastery and social well-being for students in Trumbull schools, he said.

“The lack of a consistent, in-person education for our children will have lasting impacts if schools do not respond appropriately,” he wrote. “For our students, the crisis will not be over until we are able to ensure grade-level mastery and restore social well-being.”

In February, the Board of Education approved a $110.9 million 2020-21 budget request, which would have been a 4.6 percent increase over the $106.1 million 2019-20 budget. But in between the school board’s request and the Town Council’s May final approval, the fiscal realities of the coronavirus pandemic became clear and the board settled for a $109 million allocation — a 2.8 percent increase.

The $1.9 million shortfall between what the schools requested and what they ultimately received, though, is only the beginning, Semmel said. The lunch programs, music and preschool accounts remain in the red, and a July rebate from Durham School Services, which provides bus service, was credited to last year’s budget to cover some of the shortfall.

“This created an additional ‘funding cliff’ that needed to be accounted for in the 2021- 2022 budget, i.e., the 2020-2021 transportation budget is artificially low resulting in a significant year-to-year increase for the 2021-2022 budget,” he wrote.

For this reason, he is requesting an increase of just under $4.3 million for next year. That represents a 3.94 percent hike over the current year. Much of the increase will go toward salaries and benefits for the district’s 1,000-plus employees.

“While staff costs are the greatest portion of the budget, the pandemic has only emphasized the importance of people in the ‘business’ of educating students,” Semmel wrote. “Our salary costs represent 65.4 percent of the overall budget. Including the net FTE (full-time equivalent) adjustment, this account is increasing by $688,247.”

Semmel is requesting funds to add several teaching and administrative positions, including an operations director and a human resources director, a school psychologist, a speech pathologist, a wellness teacher, math specialists, a bilingual tutor and a literacy consultant. Offsetting those increases somewhat are the anticipated reduction of five teaching positions as a result of the continuing downward enrollment trend.

Semmel cautioned though that COVID had made it difficult to project the precise number of teaching positions that would be required.

“Given the pandemic, we have less confidence in the kindergarten numbers,” he wrote. “This number can usually be predicted by using births and previous data analysis. We are not certain how many parents of kindergarten-age students chose to hold their students out of school during 2020-2021. This may mean that kindergarten class sizes will be larger than predicted.”

The school board, which received Semmel’s proposal last week, will begin its review with a pair of budget workshops, where board members will listen to department heads make their cases for their funding requests.

One workshop was held Thursday with another one scheduled for Tuesday. A third session will be held Dec. 15, if necessary.

The board is required to forward its final version of its budget request to First Selectman Vicki Tesoro by Feb. 1.