Stratford school budget catching flak

March 8, 2017

STRATFORD — A member of the Town Council has leveled a broadside in the direction of the school district, saying it has been padding its administration while not keeping track of a host of other expenses in recent years.

District 5 Councilman Gregory Cann said that in his analysis of the district’s 2017-18 budget, school administration costs have grown 40 percent in the last four years.

Cann, a Democrat, added that the proposed school budget has “data integrity errors” that the school administrators haven’t yet corrected.

“I have thirty years experience as a process improvement specialist,” Cann said. “In the last four years, we’re spending nearly 50 percent more on central office people who don’t help the students.”

The Board of Education will be sending its 2017-18 $110,497,927 budget request to Town Hall this week, a 3.47 percent increase over the current $106.7 million school spending package. This will become part of Mayor John Harkins’ overall town budget that will be sent to the Town Council on Monday.

Cann’s assessment was sharply contested by School Superintendent Janet M. Robinson, who said that the 2017-18 proposed budget has endured weeks of scrutiny by the school board and its finance committee.

“We went through seven budget workshops,” she said. “We’ve been putting a lot of improvements in curriculum and instructional strategies and it’s odd that people are saying that we should make a retreat just when we’re starting to make some headway.”

She added that Cann’s claim that the administration is seeking a bloated budget “is simply not true.”

And Robinson said that the school board already has made a number of cuts to her spending plan, some of which might haunt them down the road.

“Custodial supplies — I don’t know what we’re supposed to do when bathroom tissue runs short,” she said. “And workman’s comp — they cut that, too.”

Board of Education Chairman Jim Feehan, a Republican, was also critical of Cann’s fusillade.

“The School Board and our Finance Committee has made cuts to what the administration was seeking — we went from a five percent increase down to about 3.4,” Feehan said. “Our spending per pupil is second from the bottom when compared to similar communities. So I think we’re doing the right thing. We’re turning the corner — so do we really want to go backward?”

Feehan said that the school board passed its 2017-18 request on a 6-0 vote, “... and that included both Democrats and Republicans,” he said.

The ferocity of Cann’s criticism of the school budget is unusual for someone who sits on the Town Council, according to some officials who asked not to be identified. Council members — in Stratford and in most other towns, too — usually wait until the school board submits its budget proposal before engaging in public scrutiny, they note.

The critiques have been playing out on social media over the last few days, too, particularly on the “Stratford: Get Answers” Facebook page. Henry Bruce, a longtime critic of Town Hall and a frequent “Get Answers” contributor , said that he agreed with Cann’s assessment of things.

“Tax bills will increase $150 to $160 per household, based on an average home assessed value $160,000,” he said. “Administrator salaries up 37 percent over last four years — custodians’ salaries up 42 percent the last four years but teachers’ salaries up only seven percent in the same period.”

This is crunch time for budgets. The Town Council is required to have it’s 2017-18 town-wide budget agreed upon by mid-May in order to give the tax collector’s office a chance to send out bills in time. Under state law, the mayor and Town Council can reduce or increase the school allotment, but it can’t tell the School Board how to spends that money.