NAUGATUCK — The kids have spoken, and they’re not happy. On Monday night, when the picketing, marching and chanting before a Board of Education meeting lasted longer than the meeting itself, students criticized financial mismanagement that last year left the school system $1 million in the red and this year has given it the unsavory distinction of being the only district in Connecticut without an operating budget.
The board’s most recent deficit projection for the 2009-10 fiscal year is $1.07 million, down from the $1.3 million projected last month. When the board last met, two weeks ago, Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Tindall-Gibson said closing the gap could require laying off as many as 14 teachers, including the dozen hired over the summer.
The prospect of losing those educators prompted several high school students to take action.
“Alex [Olbrys] and I actually had a meeting with the superintendent and the mayor on Thursday to talk about everything that was going on,” said Lorena Gullotta, an Naugatuck High School senior. “We first started getting interested in it, I think it was last week, the teachers were saying, ‘There’s a possibility of cuts.’ … And Alex and I were like, ‘Hey, what’s going on? This isn’t right.’ So we wanted to get all the facts; we went straight to the top, asked them all the hard questions that we needed to get answers for, and we’ve been informing students ever since.”
Gullotta said Tindall-Gibson’s answers were evasive but said Mayor Bob Mezzo was straightforward. She added that she and Olbrys also met with Naugatuck Teachers League Vice President Charley Marenghi and said he provided a lot of information.
Based on those conversations, Olbrys characterized layoffs as a short-term solution that would harm the district’s reputation in the long run.
“This is our Naugatuck Public Schools district goals,” he said, holding out a packet of papers. “Goal number four is to develop a plan to attract and retain staff. If you lay these 12 people off, you will never be able to attract anyone to this district again. No one will ever want to work here. They’ll say, ‘That Naugatuck just lays people off.’”
Students explained a few of the problems that might result if teachers are let go mid year. Chief among them were scheduling problems. They fear a student switched from one English class to another, for instance, might fall behind because his new class is reading a book that is different from his old one. They also said fewer seats might be available in honors classes and that kids might have to give up their electives of choice because their required classes are offered less frequently.
Another student said he was concerned that fewer teachers would result in larger class sizes.
“A lot of us are applying to colleges, and we’re looking at specific things that are important to us for education,” said Anthony Krueger, a senior, “and a lot of those things are interactions with our teachers, our students in small classes.”
Though he has said for weeks that job cuts appear unavoidable, Tindall-Gibson expressed new optimism Monday that pink slips actually may be unnecessary. He outlined a series of alternative savings that totals $979,000:
- $100,000 from unspecified administrative concessions
- $63,000 from paying borough Controller Wayne McAllister to manage the school budget, instead of hiring a business manager
- $91,000 from retirees switching to a different health insurance plan
- $35,000 of insurance savings from a new contract with noncertified school staff
- $85,000 from current employees accepting payments to waive their school-district health insurance
- $135,000 by having teachers participate in one common planning hour, rather than the 10 included in their new contract
- $470,000 from three unpaid furlough days taken by all school staff
Tindall-Gibson said some of those figures could grow enough in coming weeks to make up the remaining $95,000 shortfall. He called the $100,000 worth of administrative concessions “a conservative number,” and also said the district will hold an insurance fair for employees and retirees Oct. 22.
“We fully expect that there will be a few more people who will move over [to other insurance plans] during this school year, and that will result in some savings for us,” he said. “Some of these things are projections, some of them are based upon conversations that are going on, and some require actions or decisions by employee groups, which may be made in the next two weeks or so.”
While these strategies may save money and jobs, students are not convinced they are fair.
“I mean, I understand that [furlough days] could be good for everybody,” said Aimee Toms, a sophomore. “But my mom, her salary-a-day is dinner on our table. I mean, we don’t get that, we don’t get dinner.”
“Another thing with the furlough days,” Olbrys continued, “is if you have teachers who are married in the school, and they’re a couple, well then that’s a whole week without pay, if they both take three days without pay. Would want to be asked to do that? I’d ask the superintendent, ‘Do you want to take a furlough day?’”
The board did not schedule its next meeting, but Tindall-Gibson suggested reconvening in about three weeks. With the NHS library packed by more than 100 spectators, he told everyone in attendance that he and the school board share their concerns.
“At this point we’ve kind of laid out what we think is a reasonable way for us to work together to avoid layoffs,” he said. “If these things actually go forward, we don’t anticipate that there will be any layoffs in the district, and we are certainly hopeful that that will happen. We’re all here this evening for the same purpose, I think, and that is to protect class size and protect programs and to continue to be able to provide outstanding educational services to our students.”
Some of those students, however, think the wrong people are being penalized for errors at the top.
“If this was the private sector, the CEO of the company would have been asked to resign by now,” Olbrys said. “Let’s take a look at AIG and [General Motors], and with mismanagement practices like that … people would have been asked to resign.”