School board avoids staff layoffs as it aims to balance budget

The Board of Education is avoiding staff layoffs and hoping to fully fund a technology initiative next year using unspent money from this year and last year.

The board’s request for the coming budget year was reduced by $1.86 million, in the first selectman’s recommendation, later approved by the Board of Finance and Town Council, for a total budget of $92.96 million. The schools budget represents a 2.74% increase over the current year.

Superintendent Ralph Iassogna presented a plan at Tuesday night’s board meeting to cover the $1.8-million reduction to the request. It includes $915,000 in “non-staff” reductions, in areas like bus leasing, energy, utilities, and supplies. The rest would be covered using $874,000 from last year, put in a 1% account established through state statute, and a projected $420,000 that will be unspent at the end of this school year.

The board approved the superintendent’s proposal 2 to 3, with board member Deborah Herbst abstaining. Board members Tom Kelly and Loretta Chory voted against the plan because both wanted to see if more savings could be found in staff expenses, based on what they referred to as a “vacancy rate,” or savings that the district will make if staff vacancies aren’t filled or employees take leaves of absence.

Iassogna said about $530,000 of the $874,000 will go toward staff, preventing layoffs. Staff costs could be covered next in the following budget year by switching to a self-insurance model districtwide, which would yield savings.

“We will avoid a funding cliff next year if we go to a self-funding model,” Iassogna said. “We would save about $1.6 million and avoid a funding cliff.

Kelly said using the $874,000 in that way muddied the waters.

“That $874,000 from surplus, that clouds what the actual cost of education is next year,” Kelly said. “The funding cliff could be mitigated, but that savings of $1.6 million could have been passed on as a lower request.”

Under Iassogna’s proposal, about $340,000 remaining will help cover technology improvement efforts. Last month, the Town Council and Board of Finance approved bonding about $780,000 for technology. The district’s total technology request had totaled $1.3 million, though $692,000 had originally been in the board’s operating budget and was removed by the First Selectman when he made his budget recommendation. The technology bond was voted on after the Board of Finance and Town Council had both vetted and voted on the budget. Kelly said he found it disturbing that the first selectman’s recommended budget, rather than the Board of Education’s request, was considered by the Board of Finance. He said he also found it disturbing that First Selectman Timothy Herbst had removed money from the  board’s operating request and made it a bonding item.

“We shouldn’t have allowed that to happen without protest, in my opinion,” Kelly said.

The largest non-staff reduction in Iassogna’s proposal includes leasing buses, rather than buying school buses from Dattco. Leasing will save the district about $235,000, Iassogna said. Some of the other larger non-staff reductions include cutting the supplies budget by 6%, yielding $160,000 in savings, and a projected $200,000 savings in utilities and $100,000 savings in gas and oil.

Iassogna said he will be working on getting firmer numbers and more budget projections at the next meeting.

Board member Lisa Labella, who voted in support of Iassogna’s budget plan, said that as a board member for eight years, she was also disappointed in this year’s budget process.

“We’ve gotten so far from where I wanted to be,” Labella said. “We had a process that was clear and we were communicating how we were spending our money. Now I feel we are headed in the wrong direction.”