Board to consider shortening school year

NAUGATUCK — The school board will consider increasing student activity fees by 50 percent and lopping two days off the school year—cutting its length to the state-minimum 180 days—in an effort to make up the $1.35 million budget deficit it will face in 2010-11, if the borough awards no increase.

That figure had decreased to approximately $1.7 million after the board voted March 30 to close Salem School and switch its health insurance benefits manager. It shrank again, to about $1.3 million, last week when Superintendent Dr. John Tindall-Gibson told the board it would avoid a projected $339,000 in insurance costs because of staff cuts.

The board met again Monday at Naugatuck High School; a nearby car accident twice caused a power outage in the building, prompting a quicker-than-usual dismissal of the board and about 50 attendees.

The option to cut two days from the district calendar—a measure on which the board will likely vote next Monday—would save a projected $320,000, or $160,000 per day.

A 50 percent hike to student activity fees, which is also slated for a Monday vote, would generate an estimated $23,000 in revenue.

The board discussed cutting a position in its business office for a net savings of about $54,000—a $70,000 salary minus the cost of unemployment benefits.

Borough Controller and acting Board of Education Business Manager Wayne McAllister said he had discussed with Dr. Joseph Fields, the board’s insurance broker, the option of offering a cash incentive to employees who waive the school system’s insurance plan but that they expected only modest savings from such a measure.

“[Fields] thought we should be conservative, given the numbers,” McAllister said. “We estimated first-year [savings] to be almost flat to $50,000. And he was leaning toward the flat.”

Tindall-Gibson said incentivizing employees to waive out of benefits is an “iffy proposition” in terms of savings.

“When you’re self-insured and you offer insurance waivers, you run the risk that people that opt out are not your expensive people anyhow,” he said. “So you’re paying out a fixed amount of money and it’s questionable how much you’d be saving. It’s a pretty hard thing to project.”

If the board approves all four measures—the decrease in school days, a hike in student activity fees, a position reduction in the business office and insurance waivers—it will cut between $396,000 and $446,000 from its expected deficit for the coming fiscal year, bringing the remaining gap within the $900,000 range.

But Tindall-Gibson and the board, it seems, are unwilling to go any further on staff reductions, which appear to be one of the only things—if not the only thing—left to cut.

Reading from a prepared statement, Tindall Gibson delivered an impassioned oration about the effects of staff reductions in the school system (read the story here).

The board has already eliminated 55 certified and six non-certified positions. The 14 percent reduction in certified staff Tindall-Gibson called “far and away unprecedented” when compared with other Connecticut towns.

Tom McKirryher spoke out in favor of cutting a non-tenured art position at the high school—a proposition the board had explored at a previous workshop—asserting that the fine arts are not required subjects and core classroom teachers are “the whole ball of wax.”

Neither Tindall-Gibson nor Naugatuck High School Principal Fran Serratore, who reviewed the possibility of staff cuts at his school, recommended cutting a position in that department.

“Every subject is important,” Serratore said. “Every single one.”

“Absolutely,” McKirryher replied, “but some are more important than others.”

“That depends on who you’re talking to as a student,” Serratore countered. “When I was in school, that [physical education] teacher was pretty darn important to me. I’m sure the people in the art class, that’s the most important teacher to them. … To eliminate special programs is a big mistake.”

Both board Chair Kathleen Donovan and Vice Chair Barbara Lewis sided with Serratore.

“We have to look at the whole picture,” Donovan said. “We’ve reduced staff by 14 percent. The necessary impact on curriculum and instruction is going to be huge. At this point, whether it’s an art teacher or a library specialist or an elementary teacher, I personally don’t feel we can cut this any more. We’ve cut it so far I fear how our schools are going to run this year.”

When board member Jim Scully said some positions—including the art position in question—are “probably overpaid,” Lewis replied that “The issue is … to continue to deliver the curriculum the high school wants to deliver for that subject. The salary of the position is really a separate issue from the curricular program. … I have to respect the professionals who evaluated and know that every teaching position hurts somebody, every one that we eliminate, some student someplace.”

Member Rocky Vitale took Lewis’ point a step further, saying it’s not the board’s job to discuss specific positions.

“I think sometimes when discussing specific positions, we’re overstepping our bounds,” he warned. “That’s not our job. While we need to look at it and see what we have to do, our job is to say to the Superintendent, ‘Cut X amount of dollars. Don’t care how you do it, just come back to us with it.’ It’s really not up to us to say ‘Cut a teacher, cut a social worker, cut security personnel.’ We need to keep in mind that our basic purpose is policy and the bottom line. … It’s not our job to pick and choose.”

Vitale further implored the board to have a “contingency plan” in place to cut whatever is left of the projected deficit, if the borough awards no increase, “or else we’re going to be scrambling,” he said.