School board needs 12% of original shortfall


NAUGATUCK — It appears the once-gaping hole in last year’s school budget has finally been plugged.

As the Board of Education prepares to close its books on the 2009-10 fiscal year, it is becoming apparent that, at the very most, the board will need $248,114 from the municipal budget to cover the school budget deficit.

That’s a lot of money, but not nearly as much as what was once projected: a deficit of more than $2 million. The total school budget for the year was $56.1 million.

Teachers who were laid off will not be rehired because the savings from their job cuts are factored into the current 2010-11 budget. In the current fiscal year, the school system has eliminated about 55 teachers, or 14 percent of its teaching staff. Sixteen of those positions were layoffs, 10 were resignations and 29 were retirements. Those cuts will lead to larger class sizes next year.

School board member Rocky Vitale said he doesn’t believe any laid-off teachers will be brought back because budget calculations are based on staff currently in place.

Naugatuck Teachers’ League Vice President Charley Marenghi, the union’s official spokesman and a teacher at Cross Street Intermediate School, said it would be his number one wish to see money brought back to rehire teachers who have been laid off.

“Unfortunately, we’re hearing that next year’s budget is going to be very tough again, so maybe not rehiring teachers would make it a little less of a hit to the district next year,” he said.

Collaborative effort

When a $2 million budget gap for 2009-10 fiscal year was projected in the fall, the school board discussed midyear teacher layoffs and program cuts that educators said would have had a devastating effect on public schools. To avoid those cuts, all school employees chipped in with cost-saving concessions.

Municipal leaders volunteered up to $955,906 from the town’s rainy day fund and other accounts, but that came with a price: Municipal officials wanted the school system to hire a new insurance consultant and to bring borough Controller Wayne McAllister on board to oversee school finances on an interim basis. Officials thought that move could right the ship after years of financial mismanagement, which was cited in two consecutive school audit reports.

“It was a collaboration between a lot of people to get to this point,” said school board Vice Chairwoman Barbara Lewis. “I think bringing Wayne on board has certainly helped us as well.”

Lewis, who is head of the board’s finance subcommittee, said she hopes the school system won’t need to borrow any money from the municipal budget to fill a budget gap for the 2009-10 fiscal year. The board will officially close out its books in August. And because the board froze several discretionary accounts throughout the year, there could be enough of a surplus in those to offset any projected deficit, she said.

Lewis said McAllister and Superintendent John Tindall-Gibson worked hard to freeze discretionary spending and put financial controls in place to make sure no bookkeeping blunders happen in the future. In the 2008-09 budget year, about $1 million was shifted from the municipal budget to pay the school board’s bills.

Concessions paid off

Mayor Robert A. Mezzo, who sits on the school board, said the decision to bring in McAllister and a new insurance consultant was important.

“If I were an average taxpayer and saw that we got those two concessions, I would say the borough got a bad deal,” he said. “But when you do this on a daily basis, you realize how important it is to have someone of Wayne’s caliber and the vital communication you get from excellent health care consultants. You see those were significant concessions that could pay dividends to taxpayers.”

Mezzo said McAllister, who has 30-plus years of experience in Naugatuck government, “did a phenomenal job of turning a very dire financial situation into something that could be far less than anticipated.”

On top of freezing accounts, teachers, administrators and Tindall-Gibson gave back unpaid furlough days, and the union representing secretaries, custodians, paraprofessionals, maintenance employees, and cafeteria works agreed to take a pay freeze for the third time in 10 years.

The largest savings from those groups came from the teachers’ union, which had 394 members who agreed to midyear concessions totaling $552,000.

Vitale said that since McAllister has been helping the school board, he has proven to be a good choice to help the school district.

“That being said, I still think the school board needs its own business manager,” Vitale said.