Letter: A new reality for Trumbull schools?

To the Editor:

Trumbull’s Board of Education met with its Board of Finance last Tuesday to review the 2014-15 school budget in a session that avoided the contentious dialogue of previous years. Could Kumbaya even break out?

New Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Gary Cialfi led the presentation of the $95.7 million budget recently approved by the education board — a 2.9 percent increase. First Selectman Tim Herbst reduced it minimally before sending it to the Board of Finance.

The finance board will vote on the budget on March 3, followed by the Town Council in early May.

Is it possible that after four years of harsh cuts our elected officials now realize, belatedly, that there’s nothing left to take out?

Trumbull offers its students the best education for what our elected leaders are willing to ask taxpayers to pay — though a bit more would help dramatically. Can we afford it? Our town is the 40th wealthiest of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities, but has the 112th highest cost per pupil. Unfortunately, this last point is worn as a badge of honor rather than a mark of shame.

Our schools maintain existing programs well but lack the funding to innovate on any meaningful scale. They are, for example, well behind the technology curve compared with near by and demographically similar districts.

After receiving an embarrassing consultant’s report a year ago (two-thirds of the district's 2,488 computers were at least seven years old) the district last year began a major technology buy. Computers are being replaced, our high school finally has WiFi throughout and the same capability will be available in every building by the end of this school year.

A new “Bring Your Own” program enables high school students to use their own computers, tablets and smart phones in class, and so reduces what we taxpayers must purchase.

Increases to existing line items dominate budget growth, and most are catch up. Initiatives — beyond federal and state mandates, most unfunded — are small and rare.

Our teachers had zero salary increases in two of the last three years, their new contract starts their catch up.

Two years ago paraprofessional computer support was eliminated. The new budget, with the blessing of the finance board, returns it. Additional high school teachers are sought to provide new courses that reduce the number of students now warehoused in study halls.

The board was pleased to hear that the new Common Core State Standard teacher assessment component will be delayed to 2015-16, and that its implementation carries virtually no incremental cost. On the other hand, vitally needed curriculum development continues dramatically underfunded.

Special Education received substantive, though hardly intensive, questioning. Federal and state grants fund much of it, yet local costs are high. While all districts seek to retain as many students in district as possible, some needs are too specialized, and so necessitate ever increasing tuition and transportation expenses.

Those who view strong schools as a magnet for young families and a driver of property values must hope that this budget will move relatively unscathed through the Board of Finance and Town Council.

Roy Fuchs