Closing budget gap could mean closing schools

Central Avenue School would be closed under a proposal to bridge a gap in the 2012-13 school budget. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

NAUGATUCK — School officials are considering shuttering Central Avenue Elementary School and Prospect Street Preschool to bridge a budget gap for the coming fiscal year.

“In difficult economic times, few choices regarding public education are easy. Please be assured that each and every board member, Superintendent Dr. John Tindall-Gibson, and the entire administrative team at the Tuttle Building understands that closing schools has a significant impact on many in our community,” Board of Education Chair David Heller said in a statement.

After compiling budget requests from staff, Heller said in a phone interview, the preliminary budget would have increased spending by 9 percent. Although the numbers are very preliminary, he said, such an increase is too high and officials are looking for ways to bring the budget closer to current funding levels.

Fixed costs, such as contractual obligations, utility and health care costs, are set to increase in excess of $1 million. On top of the increased costs, the district will also lose $1.4 million in revenues next fiscal year.

The revenue loss stems from federal money used in this year’s budget that won’t be available next fiscal year. Two years ago, the school board received $1.7 million in federal stimulus money from the American Resource and Recovery Act. The funds were earmarked for retaining teachers, Heller explained.

The board used $300,000 of that money in the 2010-11 fiscal year and the remaining $1.4 million in the current budget to pay for contractual increases and other costs. With the money drying up this summer, a $1.4 million hole opened up in the next budget before the board even factored in any increases.

Heller said school officials are exploring several options to fill the gap and reduce the spending increase. One of the options is a plan to close the two schools.

Tindall-Gibson estimated that closing Central Avenue would save the board about $1 million with the savings coming mostly through staff reductions. He said Central Avenue was chosen with class sizes in mind.

Central Avenue, a kindergarten through fourth grade school, has 228 students. Tindall-Gibson said if the school closed the current students could be divided up between four neighboring schools and keep class sizes between 18 and 26 students. If the closure goes forward, he added redistricting would be done to try and send children from the same neighborhoods to new schools together.

As of now, Tindall-Gibson said, Central Avenue is the only school this can be done with.

“We know that it’s very disconcerting for staff and for families to close a school,” Tindall-Gibson said. “We’re considering it very carefully.”

Two years ago budget concerns led the board to close the former Prospect Street Elementary School, which now houses the Head Start program and other pre-school programs. Along with closing Central Avenue, officials are considering closing Prospect Street Preschool. Under the plan, the Head Start Program would be relocated to the former St. Hedwig School and the other programs would be divided up between available space in other schools.

By closing Prospect Street Preschool Tindall-Gibson estimated the board could save close to $500,000. These savings, he said, would come more in terms of not spending money to maintain the school.

Tindall-Gibson said school officials are looking at other options to close the gap including eliminating programs like art in elementary schools, cutting technology investments, and changing insurance policies.

“We’re at a point right now where we’re trying to get (the increase) down further so that we’re close to a number we believe may be affordable to the people of the town,” Tindall-Gibson said.

Heller said Tindall-Gibson and Business Manager Wayne McAllister have been asked to bring a budget proposal that is closer to a 2 or 3 percent increase to the board’s finance subcommittee next Wednesday. He said no final decisions have been made and the presentation could include a number of alternatives to reduce spending.

“At this point we’re looking at all options,” Heller said.

On Monday night, school officials will meet with parents of Central Avenue student to discuss the proposal to close the school, Heller said. The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the school, 28 Central Ave.

“We want to make every effort to keep the parents of Central Avenue informed,” Heller said.

Read Board of Education Chair David Heller’s full statement here.