NAUGATUCK — Parents said last Thursday night that they were “blindsided” by the proposal to close Central Avenue Elementary School.
School officials, however, have long known that they would face some painful decisions when they will lose $1.4 million in non-renewed grant money during the fiscal year that starts in July.
“If you don’t spend it, you lose it, and we were able to spend it last year and avoid what’s happening this year,” Board of Education Chair David Heller said.
The school board received a little more than $1.7 million from the federal Education Jobs Fund, a federal stimulus program, two years ago, records show. The money had to be spent between August 2010 and September of this year on professional salaries for the borough’s public schools, according to the award letter.
Last school year, the board spent $300,000 on a few positions to ease overcrowded classrooms, said Mayor Robert Mezzo, who also serves on the school board. The remaining $1.4 million was spent this year to retain 43 positions that might otherwise have been cut, according to Business Manager Wayne McAllister.
The alternative was to reject the grant entirely, Mezzo said.
“But for those funds, we would have had this discussion last year,” Mezzo said. “There was an opportunity to maintain staff for this additional year that we wouldn’t be able to maintain.”
The school board could not have set aside money over several years to mitigate the funding gap because, under the law, any year-end surplus must be turned over to municipal accounts. In anticipation of the funding cliff, the school board switched health care providers two years ago to save $1 million. Over the past three years, the board also eliminated 50 positions and stuck to an average budget increase of 0.5 percent per year, according to McAllister.
Looking at next year’s budget, the school board will have $1.4 million less for payroll that once came from the federal grant. The board will also have to pay $727,000 in salary increases under union contracts, according to McAllister’s figures. The board’s health insurance carrier is projecting an increased cost of $760,000, but new projections could change that figure, or the board could look to switch carriers again, Heller said.
Adding in costs, such as new positions and repairs, from administrators’ “wish lists,” brings next year’s budget gap to about $5.4 million, according to McAllister’s figures.
District administrators will work to cut that projected increase to $1.7 million, or 3 percent more than this year’s $57 million budget, according to McAllister.
Closing Central Avenue Elementary School would eliminate 14 positions, including nine teachers and a principal, Superintendent John Tindall-Gibson said. That would save $1 million yearly, minus $77,000 in the first year for unemployment benefits, according to McAllister. Some utility costs would be eliminated, but most would remain functioning to prepare the building for some other use, according to McAllister.
The proposal before the board’s finance subcommittee also includes closing Prospect Street Early Learning Center and moving those preschoolers to other buildings. That would save about $500,000 that the board would otherwise have to spend on handicapped-accessibility renovations, Tindall-Gibson said.
Two years ago, parents successfully fought a proposal to close another school. The school board’s facilities committee proposed closing Salem School because it had the worst structural deficiencies, Heller said. While developing that plan, administrators encountered difficulties determining new boundary lines for the remaining schools.
Central Avenue, however, serves students from four different neighborhoods who can be easily sent to four other elementary schools, Heller said.
“The distribution issues, and decreased enrollment at Central Avenue to begin with, I think, are factors this year that weren’t necessarily factors back then,” Heller said.
The board’s finance subcommittee, and ultimately the full board, will consider other proposals to save costs, but administrators have not yet outlined what those other proposals might be.
“I would love to keep our school district the same as it is this year, next year and the year after,” Heller said. “We do have financial restrictions and limits, and we have to keep our options open and do whatever we can to save taxpayers money and to best educate and provide for the students in our community.”