BOE still quagmired on budget

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The board of education discussed three options for cutting costs at Tuesday night's meeting. Above, the board deliberates the budget in August.
The Board of Education discussed three options for cutting costs at Tuesday night's meeting. Above, the board deliberates the budget in August.

NAUGATUCK — As many as 14 positions could be eliminated from borough schools’ teaching and support force due to budgetary constraints.

Superintendant of Schools Dr. John Tindall-Gibson presented to the Board of Education three recommendations to help ease the roughly $1.3 million variance between accountant Joe Tyson’s estimated expenditure and the board’s actual allocation for the 2009-10 fiscal year.

His suggestions comprised three or more unpaid furlough days, to the tune of $553,345 in savings; early retirement packages to be offered to 25 teachers, which would amount to $645,812; and as many as 14 layoffs, which would save the board $786,807.

The proposed layoffs include four guidance positions throughout the district, two English teachers at the high school, and one position each in social work, social studies, science, mathematics, art, physical education, music and world language.

K-12 coordinators and NHS department heads would need to increase daily teaching time from three periods to five to make up for the staff reduction.

The early retirement savings estimate accounts for the replacement of 19 teachers with at least some entry-level teachers.

The board gave Tindall-Gibson the go-ahead to enter into negotiations with the teachers’ union concerning the concessions and will meet again Oct. 5 to discuss these negotiations and possibly make a decision on how to cut spending and finally adopt a budget.

At the previous meeting, Tyson compared his line-item recommendations with those of the board. Frugal as he and the members tried to be, the figure they arrived at was $57.4 million, $1.3 million more than the BOE’s allocation of $56.1 million.

When the board made its initial budget request in March, it said it needed $58.3 million to cover its anticipated costs.

The only department that could compensate for the deficit was personnel. Tindall-Gibson said earlier this month he wouldn’t be surprised if the budget cut necessitated as many as 50 layoffs. At present, the school system employs about 650 people, roughly 400 of whom are teachers.

Last December, the Board of Education and the Naugatuck Teachers League agreed to a new, three-year contract that carried a 3.25 percent salary increase for the current school year and raises of 2.25 and 2.5 percent in the following two years. The teachers agreed to forgo step increases—additional raises earned by education and experience—for the first year of the deal and also accepted greater contributions to their health insurance policies for the duration of the contract. Without those and other concessions, borough educators would be due another $967,000 this fiscal year.

At the time, the Mike Bronko administration was seeking pay freezes for all borough unions, in anticipation of a financial shortfall in 2009-10. In January, he and the Board of Mayor and Burgesses voted unanimously to send the contract to arbitration.

“You’ve got to be out of your mind to want a raise right now,” Burgess Robert Neth said in March, shortly before the arbitration panel ruled in favor of the NTL. “I’ve been either on the finance board or a burgess for 20 years, and I don’t ever recall teachers taking a zero [increase]. … I’m not saying teachers don’t deserve a raise, but now is not the time.”

NTL Vice President Charles Merenghi countered that teachers had done their part to mitigate the borough’s money problems by making concessions.

“Teachers did not cause this economic problem,” he reasoned, “yet by agreeing to nearly $1 million in savings, they are already contributing to the solution.”

A second arbitration panel agreed with him, and the new contract is now in effect.

The bottom line for taxpayers is this year, teacher salaries cost $725,883 more than they did last year. Another major expense hike comes in the form of employee health benefits, which Tyson estimated at $8.36 million for the current fiscal year—a more than $700,000 surge. While those and other costs increased, the BOE’s pocket got no deeper.

The possibility of offering early retirement packages to veteran teachers is not a new one; the board rejected in the spring a plan the league claimed it would have saved $238,000 this year and almost $3 million over the next decade. The NTL said 15 teachers were willing to accept that package.

Under the right terms, coaxing experienced teachers into retirement makes financial sense. Throughout the contract arbitration process, both sides noted that Naugatuck has a high percentage of long-tenured teachers at or near the top of the pay scale.

According to figures provided by the Board of Education, 237 borough teachers (almost 60 percent) earned more than $70,000 last year; 81 earned more than $80,000.