School board passes superintendent's budget; talk ending 'pay to play'

Knowing that a long budget process is ahead, the Board of Education made no reductions to Superintendent Gary Cialfi’s budget request for next school year, representing a 2.94% increase over the current year.

In addition to approving a $97.8-million proposed budget, the board talked about further reducing the district’s pay-to-participate fees and possibly eliminating the fees entirely as soon as the next school year.

The vote came after much discussion and after a visit from First Selectman Tim Herbst, acting as an ex-officio board member, who lauded Cialfi’s conservative budget and urged the board to take the extra step and eliminate pay-to-participate fees entirely this year, rather than over a three-year period.

Herbst presented a chart of the last 26 years of superintendent budget requests, showing that Cialfi’s was much lower.

“As we move forward in this process, I thought it was significant to note that 2.94% increase is one of the lowest requested increases I can recall, and in fact, in the last 26 years, 7.06% was the average increase requested by a superintendent,” Herbst said.

Later in the meeting, Chairman Deborah Herbst, who has been on the board for years, said the data on past budget requests was eye-opening and included years when enrollment was dropping in the 1990s, similar to how enrollment is declining today.

“This is an eye-opener to me in more than one way,” Deborah Herbst said. “Back then, things cost less.”

Board Democrat Michael Ward and Cialfi agreed, noting that there weren’t the same unfunded mandates from the state, teacher evaluations or security measures.

The budget

Cialfi’s $97.8-million budget, representing a $2.8-million increase, will now go to the first selectman, who will make a budget recommendation. It will then be vetted by both the Board of Finance and the Town Council.

Board Republican Loretta Chory made two attempts to make minor reductions to the superintendent’s request, but both failed. Chory and fellow Republican Jeffrey Donofrio voted against the final budget, which passed 4-2.

Cialfi said the lower request does not compromise the needs students have and the district’s goal to improve student learning and development. The district has been able to find savings and efficiencies by moving to a self-insured medical and dental plan, instituting new energy conservation policies and looking at performance-based contracting for major projects. Performance-based contracting allows improvements to be paid for through the energy savings the project yields.

Some of the new costs to achieve the district goals, according to Cialfi, include $156,155 for professional development, $635,857 for textbook renewals, and progress monitoring systems and testing materials for $129,465. In the overall budget, the largest increase comes from contractual salary increases, about $1.6 million as well as increases in energy and transportation.

The budget includes some full-time employee reductions, based on enrollment projections. New staff that Cialfi would like to add next year include an English language learners teacher, a full-time math intervention specialist at the high school, a high school literacy intervention specialist, a college and career transition counselor for high school students, and part-time intervention specialists at both middle schools. A technology support technician has also been added to the budget, along with a maintenance supervisor, added security personnel, and part-time Latin and culinary positions at the high school, allowing the school to expand its offerings.

When Chory asked if a technology support position could be made part-time, Cialfi said no new help has been added to that department in nine years and many projects have been put on hold.

“If technology goes down today, instruction goes down by 50%,” Cialfi said. “It’s like the pencil and crayon used to be.”

Pay to participate

The budget includes adding $85,000 to the athletics department and $30,000 to the elementary strings and band, in order to lower pay-to-participate fees.

The reductions would mean that those who pay $250 for most athletics would pay $165 next year. Those in elementary strings who pay $325 would pay $250 next year, and hockey fees would go from $750 to $665 next year. The fees would be further reduced in the 2016-17 year and entirely eliminated by 2017-18.

However, First Selectman Herbst said he believes the board can get rid of fees in one fell swoop this year.

“I like to call it a sports tax or a participation tax,” Herbst told the board Tuesday night.

With rising energy and cable costs, cost of living and more, everyone is feeling the “big squeeze” he said. Herbst said some parents are embarrassed to file hardship paperwork that is available for those who can’t pay the fees. He also felt athletics and fine arts were important ways for students to learn outside the classroom and get scholarships for college.

“I’m of the personal opinion that the rising cost of higher education will lead to a second great recession,” Herbst said.

Herbst noted the district is still seeing savings in health care costs and has the potential to save further on energy costs, allowing for the elimination this year.

“Full-day kindergarten was about kids, removing portable classrooms was about kids, and this is about kids,” the first selectman said of the fees. “My administration stands ready to work with you to make this happen.”

The board made no decisions on eliminating the fees entirely, but discussed the potential to do so.

Board Republican Susan LaFrance proposed taking the money for lowering the fees and putting it elsewhere. She suggested taking $115,000 for reducing fees this year and instead using it to add bus monitors and a security guard and to establish a math center. Her motion did not get a second from anyone on the board, so there was no further discussion.

Superintendent Cialfi warned the district could still get hit with higher- than-expected energy costs this winter but will have a better idea of the potential to cut the fees in April or May.

In Cialfi’s presentation Tuesday, he found about $153,000 of the proposed budget that could be eliminated.

Board Democrat Rosemary Seaman said she wanted to leave that $153,000 in the budget for now.

“This is the first round, and I’d like to go in with a 2.94%,” Seaman said of the increase. “Maybe we can use some of those savings to lower pay-to-participate.”

Chairman Deborah Herbst and Michael Ward said the board has been trying to get rid of the fees for a long time.

“In no way would I compromise an academic piece to do that, but for too long people have been paying extra,” Herbst said.