By Devin Leith-Yessian
WALLINGFORD — The budget presented to the Board of Education by School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo would constitute a 6.6 percent increase in school spending.
Given the scale of the $110.3 million request, Menzo said he doesn’t expect the board to pass the full request without cuts when it votes on the proposal and passes it on to Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. next month.
“It is our responsibility — as I would hope every parent and citizen would want us to take seriously — is to present to the community what the needs are,” he said. “We know that sometimes you can't afford those needs, we know that there's not a community, and hopefully not even mine that I live in, that would agree to a 6.63 percent increase.”
The presentation was made Wednesday to the board’s Special Operations Committee, which will meet again on Jan. 29 to ask Menzo and district staff any questions they have. The full board is scheduled to vote on the budget, with any revisions it makes, during its Feb. 24 meeting. From there it goes through the mayor’s office followed by review from the Town Council.
A significant portion of the increase being requested is a jump in the cost of health insurance, which is increasing approximately 25.3 percent.
Menzo said district staff left for their winter break on Dec. 13 estimating that the cost of the town’s self-provided health insurance plan wouldn’t increase more than 10 percent. They returned, however, to find that the town’s actuaries were recommending an increase over 25 percent, a difference of $1.6 million. That pushed the sustained services side of the budget from a 2.75 percent increase to the 4.31 percent now being asked for.
"When we looked in the newspaper and we were seeing other districts coming in at the fours and the fives, we were feeling pretty proud. Unfortunately it was a short lived pride," he said.
The district’s budget was split into two sections as Menzo presented it. The sustained services budget includes funding needed to maintain existing staff and services. The strategic plan includes new requests for staff, technology and facility upgrades.
The other two main drivers for the increase Menzo outlined in the sustained budget were over $500,000 in rising transportation costs, based on the bids received for the next five-year contract, and rising pay and benefits that the district is contractually obligated to provide staff. Teachers are receiving a 3 percent increase in wages and benefits, while building administrators are seeing a 2.4 percent increase.
The plan also includes reducing four elementary teaching positions and one English position and a part-time art position, both split between the high schools. Menzo said it’s too early to tell how those changes would affect specific teachers, since there could be retirements or teachers leaving the district.
“Right now these are about positions not about people,” he said.
The strategic plan, which accounts for 2.3 percent of the proposed increase at $2.4 million, is where Menzo anticipates the first cuts to be made. His presentation of the plan included a list of 57 additional discretionary funding requests, ranked by the priority staff felt each warranted.
The top of the list includes new staff, such as an assistive technology specialist for nearly $80,000 and increasing the number of instructional coaches for English and math for $160,000, as well as technology, including $60,000 for antivirus software or $100,000 for computer replacement.
"We know with a 4.31 percent increase they're most likely not going to be happening, but we do need to continue having the integrity of the plan (and) share them," Menzo said.
Menzo’s budget includes a further $870,000 in capital project requests not included in the $110.3 operational budget which would be bonded by the town. That includes $350,000 to replace the bus loop and driveway at Pond Hill Elementary School, $120,000 to improve the drop-off area at EC Stevens School and oil tank replacements throughout the schools.
Largely absent across the request is work to be done at the middle and high schools, as the Board of Education studies how to best utilize space at the four buildings. Options include simply renovating the buildings or consolidating the two high schools into one.
"We've been very cautious as to projects that we want to take on at the middle schools and high schools, because we're still having a conversation about the facilities there,” Menzo said. “So it's not because we're saying that we don't want to do things at the middle schools and high school, but if we can get it reimbursed by the state ... we don't want to lose that reimbursement.”